Business / Convergence / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 3

Terminality–the Ticking

tock Ticker, (1873), Thomas Alva Edison

Image Credit: Stock Ticker, (1873), Thomas Alva Edison

In its annual public ritual of announcing how close humanity is to self-destruction, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists convened the press in January 2020 to set the large hand of their iconic Doomsday Clock relative to the small hand which rests at midnight, waiting for the big hand to join it.

Tick.

Midnight is the hour of doom, when some massive catastrophe is said to threaten all of humanity. Or at least that thing they call “human civilization.” Or maybe they mean “Western civilization.” Each year the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, which includes thirteen Nobel Laureates, gathers to assess the state of world affairs and figure out how close to “midnight” we are. In January 2018, having experienced a year’s worth of presidential recklessness in the United States, they set the hand of the clock at two minutes to midnight, as close as it had ever been.

The clock was started two years after the US unleashed the first nuclear apocalypse over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Scientists at the University of Chicago, some of whom were themselves contributors to the development of the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project, founded the Bulletin in the immediate aftermath of the bombings to voice their concerns about the threat of nuclear warfare. In 1947, the Bulletin decided to create the Doomsday Clock, originally designed for the cover of the publication by artist Martyl Langsdorf, “using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet” (Bulletin 2018). Since then, the understanding of global existential risks has expanded from nuclear weapons to climate change and new technologies. When the clock was set at two minutes to midnight in January 2018, the Board noted loudly that the only other time the clock had been set so close was in 1953, after the US and the USSR tested their new hydrogen bombs in the Marshall Islands and Kazakhstan, respectively. In their press conference, they warned: “Only a few more swings of the pendulum, and, from Moscow to Chicago, atomic explosions will strike midnight for Western civilization.”

The Bulletin’s expert panel was joined for the first time this year by The Elders, a global leadership group founded in 2007 by Nelson Mandela. They decided to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, closer by twenty seconds than ever before. Rachel Bronson, president of the Bulletin, said: “We are now expressing how close the world is to catastrophe in seconds–not hours, or even minutes… We now face a true emergency–-an absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs that has eliminated any margin for error or further delay.” The nature of the emergency was specified in the press release as resulting from “two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond.”1

Two weeks earlier, the World Health Organization and China’s health authorities had confirmed the discovery of a new entity in our midst: the novel coronavirus, later called SARS-COV-2, for causing the disease now known as COVID-19. It had not yet become the focus of global attention, it was not part of the calculations–nuclear, environmental, and cyber–that gave us a hundred seconds. In February COVID metastasized, and by March the calculus of doom had accelerated and amplified. The ticking got a little faster and a lot louder.

The apocalypse is no longer the monopoly of millenialists. Increasingly, its advent is being prophesied under the authority of science, its appearance subject to measurements, predictions, and the assessments of expert knowledge. The various climate and population panels composed of distinguished scientists and policymakers speak in near unison: If we don’t act now, by 2050 there will be a catastrophic two-degree rise in average temperature; or, if we stabilize the human population at 9.5 billion in the next fifty years, rather than letting it rise to eleven billion, we have a chance. The abstractions of the end–too slow, too vast to be experienced in the present–are transformed into legible futures through the repetition of probabilities, charts, statistics, and temporal frames in which experts produce ever more threatening scenarios with mounting stakes. What was supposed to happen in 2050 is already happening. Climate change effects are worse than expected.2 The Antarctic ice sheets are thinning five times faster than they were twenty-five years ago (Shepherd et al. 2019). Increasingly, time is compressed and the horizon of human extinction moves closer in accelerating increments and feedback loops.

This is the logic of terminality: A threat is looming over all of humanity, and if humanity is to be saved, we can’t be caught up in parochial issues! We must do everything we can to save our unique species, the only conscious life form in an empty universe–even if saving “humans” means having to save a few rich Europeans or Americans, for after all they too are part of our species. This was argued by Dipesh Chakrabarty, who started his career defending the subaltern of India and has ended up at the University of Chicago, propagating the Anthropocene argument and mounting a universalist position. In a 2009 article that helped popularize the term Anthropocene in the social sciences and humanities, he appealed to a “shared sense of catastrophe” only to justify a particularistic argument: “Suppose all the radical arguments about the rich always having lifeboats and therefore being able to buy their way out of all calamities including a Great Extinction event are true; and imagine a world in which some very large-scale species extinction has happened and that the survivors among humans are only those who happened to be privileged and belonged to the richer classes. Would not their survival also constitute a survival of the species…?”3

As the world gets mobilized around various imaginaries of protection, as power gets organized under the sign of survival, the old problem of the erasure of “difference” by the universal figure of humanity has reached a new apex . Ongoing catastrophes, signposts of the terminal, continue to produce their uneven consequences along the fault lines of race and power, although these get overshadowed by a defanged secular and scientific authority that projects the existential ticking on an abstract universal timeline. Yet, as one of my insightful students, Camila Salvagno, said in class: “There are different doomsday time zones!”

For those in Europe and the Americas suffering from what New York Times columnist Charles Blow called “White Extinction Anxiety,” “existential threats” present with different symptoms and generate different diagnoses, prognoses, and planning than, for example, black and poor survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans;4 Candomblé practitioners in coastal Bahia; Indigenous nations in the Amazon; residents of small islands from East Asia to the Caribbean; Berbers in the dry mountains of northern Africa; war and mining survivors in the Congo; and so on. As the historically derived accumulation of wealth and power digs in to protect its advantages, we see phenomena such as the emergence of European eco-fascism as a real movement invoking the supposedly universal threat of climate change hazards to argue for the survival of Europe as the prime goal of humanity.5 Elite-funded white protesters in Michigan and elsewhere brandish weapons to clamor for the reopening of the industrial plantations of the ruling class. When people invoke or imagine the end of the world, they are generally imagining the end of their world as the end of the world.

Despite the rhetorical power of terminality discourse, there is no universal human world that is going to end nor a universal humanity salvaged; rather, under the rhetoric of universal humanity liberals and conservatives, fascists and socialists, are mobilizing again to save particular “civilized” worlds from destruction. Paris, London, Shanghai… so many other forms of life–-nomads, desert peoples, forest peoples, hill peoples, people in voluntary isolation or marronage–are devalued, invisibilized, or already “socially dead” that they don’t appear in imaginaries of future human survival. If it is crucial to counter this devaluation, it is equally imperative to identify those particular worlds that hegemonic imaginaries are claiming for salvation. Those are the very worlds (racial capitalism, urban consumerism, oligarchic militarism and finance feudalism) that have destroyed lives thus far, and keeping them around with lower emissions is not going to help. It is imperative for a critical approach to the human terminal condition to mark the close connections in the West between whiteness, capitalism, and civilization as the privileged assemblage of survival.

In the environmental and climate justice fields the consequences play out on the ground. For a number of privileged activist groups and NGOs, from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to the protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR), climate change has surfaced as a universalist device that swallows everything and comes to displace local questions of injustice in favor of the groups’ own plans for salvation. This has happened in many instances, including in contests over the fate of the Amazon rainforest, but let’s take the recent flareup between the arrivistes of XR and local activist groups that have been struggling for health and equality for decades and now see a large, well-publicized mobilization of white bodies pretending to die in demonstrations when for many of those communities the deaths and debilities have been all too real, for all too long. No need to pretend, no need to send bloody postcards from the future. From the bunkers of their Euro-universalism, these groups tend to belittle justice struggles as parochial. The white English co-founder of XR, Roger Hallam, has said: “Arguably, the identity politics of the last thirty years have been very good at furthering the rights of minorities . . . but it would be wrong to deny that it also has significant drawbacks, which is that it can’t appeal to everyone.”6 By contrast, he said, the problem of climate change is a moral, not a political matter. “The main issue is everyone’s gonna die in the next thirty years.” In the US, XR has even produced a splinter group, XR America, which explicitly has refused to engage racial politics. As one academic and activist said in a meeting: “They want to organize funeral marches for the species without dealing with the hard structural issues.” The figure of a universal existential catastrophe is repeatedly used by international aid organizations as well as more radical groups of environmental protestors to obscure local struggles. The logic even seeps into climate justice groups. I have heard many community leaders repeat, “climate change is the ultimate disrupter.” But in maintaining this logic, climate will always swallow up justice. It bears repeating instead that “injustice is the ultimate disrupter, climate change is its effect.”

My Shipibo colleagues in the Peruvian Amazon say, “No hay futuro sin futuro indigena”–there is no future without an Indigenous future, a pronouncement reversing civilizational accounts of history and progress which left indigenous populations for dead, as extinct, remnants of a subhuman past rather than makers of a human future. Or as Alisha Wormsley’s now famous art billboard in Pittsburgh declared, “There are black people in the future.” The future is also a way to defy the present. There may not be a Planet B but there are many other possible worlds if only we could end this one. And so what if we imagined the future from the end rather than imagined the end as the future?

Works Cited
1 Spinazze, Gayle. “Press Release: IT IS NOW 100 SECONDS TO MIDNIGHT.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 23 2020: https://thebulletin.org/2020/01/press-release-it-is-now-100-seconds-to-midnight/
2 That was the conclusion generally drawn from the 2018 special report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/10/ipcc-report-climate-change-impacts-forests-emissions/
For a summary of the IPCC report: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/summary-for-policy-makers/ (accessed November 20, 2018)
3 Dipesh Chakrabarty. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Eurozine, 30 October 2009: https://www.eurozine.com/the-climate-of-history-four-theses/
4 Charles Blow, “White Extinction Anxiety.” The New York Times, June 24, 2018: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/24/opinion/america-white-extinction.html.
5 Tammilheto, Olli. “The Blind Spots of Eco-fascist Linkola.” Translated by Timo Vuorio. http://www.tammilehto.info/english/linkolablind.php (accessed May 25 2019)
6 Kinniburgh, Colin. “Can Extinction Rebellion Survive?” Dissent, Winter 2020: https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/can-extinction-rebellion-survive.

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