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A Bang and a Whimper

I noticed on my drive home from Ohio last week that the billboard near Toledo announcing the world’s end in May, 2011 has finally been removed.  Given the long history of Christian apocalyptic, there is little reason to think that folk will stop their hysterical imagining of when God will unleash Armageddon on this corrupt world. Self-proclaimed prophets of doom regularly wake up the morning after unrepentant, ready to explain the miscalculation away and project new dates for us to ponder.  The Bible does offer the religious speculators ample material, particularly when read in literalist, wooden ways.  But I suspect that the end of time has little to do with richly textured narratives of the Book of Revelation.  The very real possibility of the world’s end is much more about the arrogance and carelessness of human agency than the long range planning of the divine Creator.

Earlier this month the Science and Security Board of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists met in Washington for its annual consideration of whether to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock closer to or further from midnight.  The Bulletin was established in 1945 by scientists and engineers involved in the Manhattan Project which created, in part, the first atomic bomb.  Two years later they displayed the Clock on the cover of their magazine to convey the perils posed by nuclear weapons.  The movement of the hands from year to year represents the assessment of scientists and policy experts, including a number of Nobel laureates, of whether the decisions of politicians and policy makers, the actions of the scientific community, and effects of natural and human initiated events around the world have moved us closer to or more safely away from Doomsday, that is, catastrophic annihilation.

This year the Bulletin moved the clock one minute closer to midnight.  “It is five minutes to midnight,” the Board reported.   “Two years ago it appeared that world leaders might address the truly global threats that we face.  In many cases, that trend has not continued or been reversed.”  The failure to act on international non-proliferation pacts and to dramatically reduce the number of nuclear weapons, now numbering approximately 19,500, the inability to secure nuclear materials that can potentially be used in weapons and the resulting vulnerability to misuse by radical groups, the problems with nuclear power highlighted by the Fukushima disaster, and above all the unwillingness to address climate change all prompted The Bulletin to move the Clock toward midnight.

The Bulletin’s warnings about climate change are particularly unnerving:

“The global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in Earth’s atmosphere.  The International Energy Agency projects that, unless societies begin building alternatives to carbon-emitting energy technologies over the next five years, the world is doomed to a warmer climate, harsher weather, droughts, famine, water scarcity, rising sea levels, loss of island nations, and increasing acidification.”

The implications of all of this for escalating international conflict make this all the more alarming.  The dilemma is put starkly by The Bulletin:

“The challenges to rid the world of nuclear weapons, harness nuclear power, and meet the nearly inexorable climate disruptions from global warming are complex and interconnected.  In the face of such complex problems, it is difficult to see where the capacity lies to address these challenges.  The political processes in place seem wholly inadequate to meet the challenges to human existence that we confront.”

Candidates in recent weeks have spent considerable energy courting “the Evangelical vote.”  Many of these voters, presumably, hear a lot in their churches about the end of the world.  How ironic that the courting of these votes need not – apparently – include any reference to real changes needed in public policy to avoid a catastrophic end to the world, an ending in which God need play no discernible role.

T.S. Eliot called the survivors of the Great War “the hollow men.”

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw.  Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind on dry grass
Or rat’s over broken glass
In our dry cellar.
Shape without form, shade without color,
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion.

Those who died in the war, the poet writes, look back from their Kingdom of death to remember the survivors, if at all, “not as lost violent souls, but only as the hollow men, the stuffed men.”  I wonder if the founders of The Bulletin, some of whom were among those who unleashed such destructive power and, having done so,  turned prophets to warn those who would come after, might be looking back toward us from “death’s other Kingdom” and see our inability or unwillingness to defend Creation as evidence of our own hollowness?  Stuffed with vanity and hubris, our self-deception like so many whispers defying the truth, as quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or, better yet, as rat’s feet over broken glass?

The world will end, Eliot tells us, “not with a bang but a whimper.”  Decades after the poet we know more of that potential ending than even his haunting, war inspired musings.  A bang and a whimper is more like it.  And God will wonder why so many faith drunk people spent so much time worrying about God’s world ending judgment when they seemed so perfectly willing and capable of accomplishing it all by themselves.

John H. Thomas


Quotes from The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at www.thebulletin.org

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