In the first days of 2020, a deadly respiratory virus began making its way around the world. Over the summer, many in the United States saw hazy sunsets as the West Coast went up in flames. And the Atlantic hurricane season whipped through an alphabet’s worth of names in record time.
Unsurprisingly, last year saw a surge in apocalypse predictions—even before locust swarms of biblical proportions descended upon Eastern Africa, that is. The University of Connecticut’s Peter Turchin gained attention from national media outlets for his study of the rise and fall of civilizations, having forecasted in 2010 that the nation would go through a period of social upheaval the following decade. And the notion of 2020-as-doomsday so suffused the collective consciousness that “2020 apocalypse bingo cards” were presented without context on social media, with boxes such as “United Nations Collapses” and “Meteor Strikes Earth.”
So perhaps it’s no surprise that on January 27, 2021, the Doomsday Clock—an installation housed at UChicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and one of the most recognizable symbols of impending apocalypse—remained set at its closest time ever to the metaphorical demise of humanity, "100 seconds to midnight."
But one reading of the 74-year-old clock’s history offers a cautiously optimistic lesson: that the present moment is far from the first time humanity has entertained thoughts of apocalypse.
The Doomsday Clock was created shortly after World War II by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a group of University of Chicago physicists concerned about the potential devastation that could be brought upon humanity by nuclear weapons.
“The fundamental idea … that led to the idea that we should think about things in [apocalyptic] terms was the atom bomb test,” said professor Robert Rosner, chair of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, in an interview with The Maroon. “Unlike all other weapons that humans have ever conceived of, this one was the first one that could end all of civilization.”
As for the choice of metaphor, the actual Doomsday Clock was chosen serendipitously. Martyl Langsdorf, a landscape painter and the wife of Alexander Langsdorf, who worked on the Manhattan Project, designed it as a cover for the Bulletin’s magazine. The illustration struck a chord with the team, and the hands were initially set to seven minutes before midnight because, according to the artist, “it looked good.”
Nowadays, in order to set the clock, specialists in a variety of fields including the military, science, and public policy, meet in groups throughout the year to analyze current threats to humanity. They then present their findings to the Science and Security Board, which then makes a “consensus-driven” decision on what the time should be.
Interestingly, the central question the committee tries to answer is not an absolute, but a differential: has the world gotten better or worse since the clock was last updated?
“Midnight symbolizes catastrophe, doomsday if you like, and the question is, are we moving closer or further away?” said professor Daniel Holz, a member of the Science and Security Board. “The time of the clock is completely arbitrary.”
In the past, the clock has often followed a pattern of escalation and détente. Past moments of extreme stress have included the discovery of the hydrogen bomb in 1953, when the clock dropped to two minutes until midnight, and the height of the Cold War in 1984, when it was set to three minutes. But for both events, an easing of tension took place soon after, and the clock fell back to 12 and 17 minutes respectively with the signing of nuclear treaties in 1963 and the end of the Cold War in 1991.
Recently, however, this hasn't been the case. Since 2010, the time to midnight has been gradually decreasing, from five minutes to the low water-mark of 100 seconds to midnight in 2020 and 2021.
Holz and Rosner gave a number of explanations of this worrying trend.
Although less prominent in the public sphere than it was in the 20th century, the nuclear threat remains at the forefront of the board’s mind. “Today, hardly anyone talks about it,” Rosner said. As a result, policy has become weaker to the point that the physicist described the current era as a “replay of the 1950s,” when the hydrogen bomb was created, in terms of the threat of nuclear warfare.
Improvements in nuclear launch technology have also decreased the time needed to mount (and therefore the time available to respond to) a nuclear attack, increasing the risk of an impulsively instigated catastrophe.
“The timescale on which you have to respond is no longer 20 or 30 minutes,” Rosner explained. “It's minutes. You have minutes. Who are you going to consult in minutes?”
Holz also contrasted the threat of nuclear annihilation, which could be diminished with rhetoric and treaties, with that of climate change, for which the impact of our actions is often delayed.
“The CO2 [from past decades] is still in the atmosphere,” he said. “We’'re screwed for the next 20 or 30 years no matter what we do, because the damage is already done.”
Climate change and nuclear Armageddon aren't the only threats that the Bulletin considers. In fact, when considering the utter destruction of humanity, its members have no shortage of ideas: bioweapons, nanobots, artificial intelligence—you name it.
“Everyone has their favorite doomsday scenario,” Holz said. “We’'d rather not be surprised.”
But one danger has risen above others in recent years, no doubt intensified by the recent pandemic and the political tensions leading up to the election. This, of course, is the spread of false information.
“The thing that I think we've been most concerned about over the last few years, and I have to say the last few months have really validated these concerns, is this disinformation and correction of information,” said Holz. “If you can’'t agree on very basic facts… it’s really hard to address them.”
Rosner concurred. “This ability to basically spread misinformation has made all the things that we've been talking about traditionally as problems even more problematic,” he said.
This was confirmed when the 2021 Doomsday Clock announcement named disinformation as a “threat multiplier,” intensifying the risk posed by other dangers such as nuclear annihilation and climate change.
Regarding the purpose of the Doomsday Clock, Holz emphasized the role of scientists such as those on the Bulletin in saving the world from cataclysm. But he also stressed that they couldn’t solve the world’'s problems alone.
“Many of the issues and threats we’'re facing are scientific or technological at their heart… and scientists have a role to play in those,” Holz explained. “That being said … a lot of the issues are now sociological, political, policy corrections, international treaty type… and those are extremely important and relevant in the discussion.”
Ultimately, Rosner describes the Doomsday Clock as “a call to arms.”
“I think for a large fraction of Americans, we're kind of sleepwalking through the present period and wishing it were different,” he said. “I think we have the technical capabilities to deal with the kinds of problems we face and the only question is, ‘Will we do it?’ And that’s not a question, unfortunately, for science.”
If science offers the tools to prevent apocalypse, then the humanities offer the ability to make sense of it. Apocalypse has long been a fertile theme for works of literature, art, and philosophy. Perhaps no one knows this better than Mark Miller, a professor in UChicago’s English department who teaches a class about the long history of apocalyptic literature. The course, called “Some Versions of Apocalypse,” studies texts ranging from the Book of Revelation to zombie apocalypse novels from the 2010s.
One of Miller’s main lessons is that in many works, the allure of the “end times” is not just fatalistic.
“It’s not entirely traumatic; there’s also desire,” he said. “The allure is in the fantasy of navigating a hostile environment…There’s fear, but it’s also a manifestation of a desire to have that ‘solo-survival’ world, to project yourself into it successfully.”
When reading apocalyptic literature, Miller mines the text for its “kernel of fantasy,” or the aspect of the text that readers find alluring. In the zombie-apocalypse series “The Walking Dead,” for example, he sees this kernel as a white-nationalist, gun-rights fantasy; the series entertains the prospect of a world in which citizens must fight for their own survival against zombies’ physical attacks, thereby justifying gun ownership.
The theme of individual preparedness is also present in the zombie- apocalypse novel World War Z by Max Brooks. Brooks has said in an interview that what draws Americans to survivalist fiction, such as his work, is their conviction that “with the right tools and talent…we can survive anything.”
So, what’s the “kernel of fantasy” to be found in our present day? Miller said that it depends on who you ask.
“Part of what makes 2020 so ripe for apocalyptic meaning, or fantasy, is that there’s no single answer to that question,” he said. “I don’t think there’s the same kernel of fear or desire for everyone...There’s so many things that are overlapping at once.”
Another lesson about doomsday situations that Miller put forward was an idea from acclaimed science fiction author N. K. Jemisin—that “the end of the world is always the end of somebody’s world.”
“Historically speaking, there has never been an actual end of the world…So you have to ask, whose world is ending? What does it mean to call that ‘the world’?” he said. “If I were to look at  apocalypse bingo sheets and do a close reading of them, that’s the question I would be asking: what actually is coming to an end, and why does that thing feel like the world to somebody?”
He noted that humanity’s ability to completely destroy itself through nuclear warfare or climate change adds a caveat to Jemisin’s quote (though of course, he explains, these scenarios would not constitute the end of the world for many of Earth’s non-human species). Nonetheless, Miller believes that Jemisin’s idea provides a useful framework for earthly scenarios.
“When people look at the George Floyd protests—let’s call them riots, just to enter into the perspective that some people view them from—when that looks like the end of the world, what world is that the end of?” he said. “That’s the end of a world in which people who don’t have to face police brutality as a routine part of their lives get to think it’s not real.….It’s a very specific world that’s being ended there.”
Similarly, Miller discussed why the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency felt uniquely harmful and world-ending, as opposed to, for example, the presidency of George W. Bush.
“Part of why Trumpism seemed like the end of America, in a way that Bush didn’t, is that the majority of the damage done by George Bush happened far away from here. It happened to people living in Afghanistan and Iraq; it happened to U.S. military who got sent over there, none of whom I know,” he said. “So there, too, my privileged, insulated relationship to that suffering was leading to a way of reading the moment now that’s very partial. It’s incumbent on us to interrogate why we’re reacting the way we do—why certain things read apocalyptically to us.”
One person engaging in this precise act of interrogation is William Schweiker, a professor of theological ethics at UChicago’s Divinity School. Like Miller, Schweiker is a scholar of apocalyptic thinking, analyzing it from a historical and spiritual angle rather than a literary one. And where Miller sees fantasy in apocalypse, Schweiker sees something else: hungers of the human spirit.
“Apocalyptic thinking tends to be concerned in judgment. That is, that what has been wronged will be just wrong, and what is good will be restored, redeemed, or enhanced,” he said. “Lying in the depths of our lives, since you see this genre [of apocalyptic literature] in most cultures, is this hunger for justice. This hunger that things be balanced out, that evil not triumph.”
Schweiker said that one common thread among all major cataclysms of history is the human yearning to make sense of a seemingly cruel, merciless world: to pose the terrifying question to oneself, “what does my suffering mean?”
He illustrated this with the example of a family coping with the death of a child.
“What immediately happens is the question, ‘How do I understand this? How do I interpret this? How do I make sense of it?’ Because if I can’t make sense of it, I will go crazy with despair,’” he said. “The same thing happens with cataclysmic events: it sparks the human need to make sense.….We are creatures that have to interpret our lives.”
The ties between the concept of apocalypse and sense-making run deep. The word’s etymological roots come from the Greek word apocalyptein, meaning “disclosure”—an etymology to which the title of the apocalyptic Book of Revelation from the Christian Bible can also be traced. In keeping with this theme of “disclosure” or “unveiling,” Schweiker said, many disasters of history have been interpreted as revealing the structure of reality. For example, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 inspired major developments in theodicy, the branch of theology concerned with why a loving and powerful God would permit tragedy.
The question at hand, then, is one that Schweiker posed in an article published in a Divinity School journal, Sightings, as the pandemic was worsening in April of last year: “What has our Apocalypse disclosed to us?”
His answer to this question is manifold. The pandemic, he writes, has disclosed that “the economic order of wealthy nations is dependent on the poor who are subjected to the unrelenting gallop of the pandemic”; it has disclosed “the pain of loneliness and isolation”; and it has brought to light “the fragility of life.”
Pestilence is often interpreted to bring divine justice, he notes. But rather than interpreting the pandemic as a form of retributive justice, Schweiker suggests that it could also be viewed as a form of restorative justice, which aims to heal wounds from the past rather than punish wrongdoers.
“I would hope that we could see the pandemic more in those terms—that is, what do we need to restore to the environment, to the poor, to those who don’t have access to medicine?…As a religious thinker, I would like to think that we could be humbled enough to realize that we need to restore some measure of justice in our world. Is that gonna happen?” Schweiker laughed. “I’m also a realist.”
“But if there’s something one can take away [from the pandemic], it would be, look, this has disclosed the incredible injustices of our world, and our responsibility is to help address those.”