IF SAFETY ORANGE IS THE EMBLEM of this chronic state of high alert, we might say that the hands of the Doomsday Clock point to orange. Operated by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the Doomsday Clock measures the world’s vulnerability to global catastrophe (nuclear weapons, climate change, cyberwar). The hands had held at two minutes to midnight—two minutes to global catastrophe—since January 2018; in 2020, the hands ticked forward to one hundred seconds to midnight.1 The clock ticking forward seems inexorable, a product of what the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board called in 2019 the “new abnormal”: the unsustainable new world order, maintained by the inaction of global leaders and enabled by the widespread disinformation that is “lulling citizens around the world into a dangerous sense of anomie and political paralysis.”2 The Doomsday Clock is a public-facing project intended to convey in the clearest possible terms the probability of irreversible planetary disaster in order to provoke radical action. However, as I showed in the previous chapter, the effect of living under the perpetual ticking down to catastrophe—of always living at Threat Level Orange—is one of frustrating action, not encouraging it. The constant awareness of doom produces crisis paralysis, desensitizing by hyperstimulating.
In principle, a clock counts down the passage of time. But the Doomsday Clock works probabilistically, and it is therefore asymptotic: it does not tell time or indicate when the end of the world will come but instead infinitely defers something presented as inevitable. By speaking in a speculative tense, it continually allows for some margin of risk—and thus some margin of hope and doubt.3 The probabilistic logic of the clock dictates that one can never escape the apocalypse—but by the same logic, paradoxically, one can also never reach it. The Doomsday Clock, like Safety Orange, does not simply highlight the fact that the planet is headed for climate disaster; it highlights the gap between where we are and the impending catastrophe (temporalized as one hundred seconds). The clock, whose predictions are based in statistical knowledge, unintentionally opens an interval of uncertainty—an interval that can be seized as an alibi for maintaining the status quo.
According to climate organizer George Marshall, even the meaning of the word “uncertainty” can be exploited to stifle action. In his book on the psychology of climate denial, Don’t Even Think About It, Marshall explains,
There is even widespread uncertainty over the very meaning of the word uncertainty. The precise language of science uses the word to mean the extent to which the weight of available evidence supports a conclusion. Scientists argue that full certainty is unattainable, indeed damaging, and that the maintenance of doubt is the very foundation of the scientific method. However, the lay public uses the word in a quite different way: to mean the extent to which the expert is confident in his or her stated opinion. When scientists say uncertain, the public hears unsure, and considers them less reliable or trustworthy.4
This interval of uncertainty is opened up by the scientific and liberal recognition of the contingency inherent in knowledge practices, but this nuance is exploited by those whose financial interests would be affected by climate change action—conservative political elites, as well as coal, rail, and utility companies.5 These actors exploit the interval of uncertainty, turning precision against them by highlighting its contingency or uncertainty—representing it as “just a theory.”6
The “post-truth” media environment aside, as Marshall’s book argues, motivating the public to act on climate change already brings with it significant psychological and public relations challenges.7 As climate communication expert Sean Munger warns: “Climate change lacks salience, meaning that it does not rise to the level of threat necessary to trigger humans’ fight-or-flight responses; dealing with it requires immediate trade-offs of people’s standards of living to ameliorate potential future harms that are perceived as distant and speculative; and climate change seems, to many people, to be contested and uncertain.”8 Much recent work on climate change has sought to shorten the timescale and make concrete the risks: David Wallace-Wells’s bracing 2019 book The Uninhabitable Earth seeks to shatter public complacency by looking beyond “business-as-usual” warming projections to examine the “brutal long tail” of worst-case-scenario climate predictions. The book’s opening line: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.”9 And the warnings are growing more, not less, dire: in a peer-reviewed article published in early 2021, seventeen scientists describe the coming climate future if we continue at our current pace as “ghastly”: “Humanity is causing a rapid loss of biodiversity and, with it, Earth’s ability to support complex life,” they write; nevertheless, “the mainstream is having difficulty grasping the magnitude of this loss, despite the steady erosion of the fabric of human civilization.”10
Safety Orange plays on a confusion between present and future as well as between what is probable and what is imminent. This temporal confusion is particularly dangerous when it comes to climate change, which is in fact both urgent and (to a large degree) mitigable; when scientific uncertainty is treated as doubt, and when present comfort trumps future safety, however, we can ignore the likely lasting effects of climate change, which (depending on our behavior now) could be either manageable or apocalyptic. Munger explains:
Even fully achieving the optimistic goal of the Paris Accords of holding warming to 1.5°C by 2100 comes with considerable setbacks, for example, “committed sea level rise” that is projected to occur regardless of whatever CO2 mitigation actions are taken now. While this is undeniably a reality of the climate change situation, it creates a difficult selling dilemma: let’s sacrifice today to live in a world that’s significantly worse than the one we have now, but one that is less bad than the one we’ll have if we do not sacrifice. . . . When viewed this way, it is unsurprising that messaging attempts that try to motivate behavior change by “turning up the dial” on depicting apocalyptic futures make no real difference to audiences, and sometimes even backfire.11
Too-dire risk communications can foster inaction in the present—why bother?—but equally, not-dire-enough risk communications can foster complacency, reducing the sense of threat posed by climate change. This catch-22 is a sort of messaging standoff—a standoff emblematized by the color orange in environmental risk visualizations.
Take the color spectrum—green to yellow to red—used in public risk communications to convey rising heat indexes in climate change models or increasing spread in maps tracking coronavirus infections.12 Such data visualizations implicitly rely on what designers call “learned colors,” for they are based on the familiar hazard range of green-amber-red (like a traffic light they indicate green=go, red=stop).13 In this scenario, orange falls into an age-old problem: the representation of averages as desirable. As Jill Walker Rettberg explains: “The power of visualizations to show averages and patterns contributed to the nineteenth-century privileging of the ‘norm,’ or . . . a ‘generalized notion of the normal as an imperative,’ where ‘the average then paradoxically becomes a kind of ideal, a position to be wished.’”14 The visual risk index color scale implicitly presents orange, which is the median color of the scale, as the norm; within the chromatic logic of these visualizations, orange appears as a safe middle ground between green and red. But just as the Doomsday Clock cannot reach midnight (or it would annihilate itself), there can never be green or red but only orange—represented in varying shades of intensity—when color is used to visualize the probability of risk. In an unquantifiable apocalyptic future, so long as risk exists, we can only eternally hover at orange.15
Thus, when used to represent data values, orange cannot be a vector of meaningful change. Instead, it operates as a regulating mechanism that simply upholds the status quo, suspended between a (green) past and an ever-deferred (red) future. Rather than mitigating crises, orange represents them as stable and manageable—as sustainable. But, as Michelle C. Neely argues, sustainability is a “capitalist-compatible paradigm” that privileges the capitalist growth imperative over the ethics of environmental justice. “As the planet edges toward disaster,” Neely writes, “sustainability’s tendency to look for a middle ground that protects the portfolio interests of the few over the present and future well-being of the many comes to seem more and more absurd.”16 Because the paradigm “fundamentally prizes not transformation but continuity,” as she argues, “sustainability’s reassuring emphasis on stability comes at a high cost.”17 Orange is precisely that “middle ground” between red and green, between stop and go. It is the color of incrementalism, of compromise, of maintaining business as usual.
It is appropriate that these risk visualizations rely on the “semantic resonance” of the traffic light color palette, for the first three-color traffic light was invented in 1920 in Detroit (the automobile manufacturing capital of the world) to respond to the risks associated with U.S. industrialization: in the early days of automobiles, there was little to govern traffic flow except for police officers who stood in the road directing traffic, and accidents were common and dangerous.18 To reduce the risk, cities began installing two-colored traffic lights (red/stop and green/go) at crossroads, telling drivers when to stop for crossing traffic.19 Over time, as road traffic continued to increase, the two-colored light no longer reduced risk to an acceptable level; city streets filled and overflowed with onrushing cars, bicycles, carriages, and pedestrians, causing a surge in traffic fatalities. A decade later, when every major U.S. city and many small towns had at least one traffic light, the amber light was added to the red/green traffic signal.20 The amber light is designed to reduce risk within the congested and fast-paced spaces of capitalist circulation. Like the traffic cone, it aims to impede circulation as little as possible, using the smallest possible investment in public infrastructure.
While Americans may associate the amber light with the color yellow rather than orange, the amber light best manifests orange’s neoliberal logic of warning: it says proceed at your own risk. An invention of the Motor City, the amber light normalizes danger in the name of continued circulation, allowing cars to move through space with as little interruption as possible. Circulation itself—the precondition for capitalism—is represented by the car, which began as a symbol of American individualism and progress in the twentieth century and now, in the twenty-first century, emblematizes U.S. urban blight and climate crisis. But here driving is not simply a metaphor for the existential threat posed by global warming. It is our cultural insistence on traveling by car—the unchallenged supremacy of the auto industry—that, as Andreas Malm argues in Fossil Capital, has contributed to “‘carbon lock-in’: a cementation of fossil fuel-based technologies, deflecting alternatives and obstructing policies of climate change mitigation.”21 And we have yet to put the brakes on our dependency on fossil fuels: as of 2019 we were “burning 80% more coal than we were just in the year 2000.”22
Like the amber traffic light, maps and other visualizations tracking COVID-19 risk levels use Safety Orange to keep people circulating under the banner of prudence. In these visualizations, Safety Orange is less a gradient of red than it is a strategic forestallment of red. During the coronavirus crisis, the visual vernacular of orange in data visualizations has been deployed to disguise imminent danger as potential risk; when the dangerous seems normal, citizens get back to work and capital circulates unimpeded.23 Now, orange is not the new black but “the new normal,” that newly ubiquitous phrase that, like the orange on the data visualizations, normalizes the current situation. When used by governments and corporations, it encourages a worldview that assimilates extreme events as everyday parts of life as a mantra for getting back to business.24 But this situation is decidedly not normal—is anything but normal. This state of emergency, which we experience not as active terror but as exhaustion, as burnout, as anomie, feels as though it is just how things are now—as though it is permanent.
Eventually, though, the elasticity of orange gives out. By late November 2020, White House Coronavirus Task Force member Dr. Deborah Birx was forced to admit that over half of the United States had moved into the “red zone.”25 By December 2020, the country had driven off the cliff of red. With no more room on the barometer, data experts were left with no other choice than to introduce a new color to signify unprecedented levels of danger, and the U.S. turned eggplant on the world map.26
According to the logic of the original coronavirus data visualization, which went from white to orange, purple should have been impossible. By resetting the outer boundary of the color scale from red to dark purple, the data visualization breaks the measure by which the data’s severity can be comprehended. When red no longer marks the outer limit, we find ourselves in a data field of undefined parameters where unheeded warnings appear to yield no visible consequences, only more latitude.27 Indeed, the visualizations’ collapse into eggplant subsumes red and purple under the logic of orange. It suggests not that we are beyond orange but that the entire color spectrum now only reads as different shades of orange (including, with corporate “greenwashing” tactics, even green!).28 The risk index, invented to make risk thinkable, has the unintended effect of training us to accommodate and accept unthinkable levels of risk: by containing risk within a set limit, it in effect gets rid of the limit. Red—the color of the revolution, the color of the stop sign—no longer signifies finality; it is only another step in the never-ending intensification of risk.
Orange signals “proceed with caution” but never “stop.” Safety Orange makes the current system seem like it works as it should. It uses the visual rhetoric of attention and protection to make structural problems appear, not only local or short-term, but also controllable and under control. The absorption of all colors under orange effectively disarms efforts to enact serious systemic solutions to long-term problems. Orange has become the essence of a semiotic warning system that, paradoxically, teaches us to ignore the signs of danger. The strange infolding temporality of orange thus problematizes the structure of “the event” of crisis: as Lauren Berlant contends in Cruel Optimism, “slow death” complicates “the ways we conceptualize contemporary historical experience, especially where that experience is simultaneously at an extreme and in a zone of ordinariness.”29
As Tobias Menely and Margaret Ronda have shown in an essay on the critical and ecological significance of red, there is a long history of ignoring the catastrophic consequences of carbon-based global capitalism represented by the color.30 Red “serves as the acute sign of apocalyptic revelation itself,” making visible “an otherwise invisible threat, much as a stop sign warns of danger.”31 However, they say, red often goes unheeded, because its referent is often invisible (think greenhouse gases, or for that matter, coronavirus): their triggers offer no spectacle, no definite beginning or ending.32 Orange is thus inherently inadequate to represent what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence”: “To confront slow violence,” he argues, we must be able to “plot and give figurative shape to formless threats whose fatal repercussions are dispersed across space and time. The representational challenges are acute, requiring creative ways of drawing public attention to catastrophic acts that are low in instant spectacle but high in long-term effects.”33
Using orange as a heuristic allows us to make slow violence representable. Perhaps more importantly, it helps us apprehend the acceleration of slow violence and death on a mass scale under contemporary conditions. In early 2021, as the United States was marking the grim milestone of a half million deaths from COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, based on findings from the first six months of 2020, average life expectancy estimates in the United States had dropped a full year—the largest decline since World War II killed a generation of young soldiers. The report found that there were significant racial disparities: Black and Latino death rates were far higher, declining by 2.7 years and 1.9 years respectively, and Black men saw a decline of 3 years.34 This dry, technical public health report allows us to feel and apprehend the threat to Black and Brown life. Here, orange highlights the extreme inequality of neoliberal policies’ effect on certain communities, which become visible in citizens’ differential access to health, social and ecological safety, and a secure future. These raw figures evidence the unspectacular loss of communities turned red that COVID-19 risk indexes do not capture. They remind us that, as with all probabilities, the data is based on what has already happened—lives already lost, in this case due to structural failures to act.
As the “acceptable” margin of loss of life and environmental cost is integrated into the data model, a perpetual state of orange is the indicator of abiding system failure, of warnings gone unheeded, as by design. To return to the problem of climate change: consider the Climate Clock, which as of September 2020 has been conspicuously displayed in orange as part of the public art installation Metronome on a building in Manhattan’s Union Square. Inspired by the Doomsday Clock, artists Andrew Boyd and Gan Golan imagined the countdown as a way to illustrate the urgency of the climate crisis: the installation counts down the closing of the critical window for achieving zero emissions and preventing global warming from becoming irreversible.35 The scientific consensus is that we must keep warming under the 1.5°C threshold, beyond which it is widely predicted to wreak damage of cataclysmic proportions, including drought, floods, food shortages, extreme heat, sea rise, hurricanes, and the end of coral reefs, putting hundreds of millions of people into poverty and creating a refugee crisis.36 As of this writing, the digital clock shows 6 yrs 149 days 17 hrs 41 mins 52 secs.37 The work has been described by its creators as a “permanent” public artwork (an ironic description, given its announcement of imminent threat).38 The irony of being locked in the limbo of permanent imminence is further exacerbated by the material conditions of the public artwork’s existence. Its patron is billionaire real estate mogul Stephen Ross, a frequent investor in sustainable cities and the developer who owns the building One Union Square South on which the countdown is displayed. Despite championing the project as one that “will remind the world every day just how perilously close we are to the brink,” Ross was a generous supporter of Trump, who ignored scientific evidence and climate activism and aggressively rolled back environmental protections that regulated industrial emissions; the U.S. is now second only to China in global emissions.39 The greenhouse gas pollution from Trump’s policies—in addition to the rollbacks on emissions policies, he passed protections for the fossil fuel industry—has already caused irreversible damage, for over Trump’s four-year term in office, we “crossed a long-feared threshold of atmospheric concentration.”40
As I write these words, the sun is setting on an orange-tinted presidency, and there is good reason for optimism. Vaccination is well underway, a sweeping COVID-19 relief bill has been signed into law, and the Biden administration has begun reversing Trump policies and, thanks to sustained pressure from activists, advancing what have been described by many progressives as solid climate justice and public infrastructure agendas. But even now that Trump has left office, we must not be too quick to celebrate the end of the Orange era in U.S. presidential politics. We should remember that, as a semiotic and linguistic grammar, orange forecloses both the rhetoric of extreme danger (the red of catastrophe) and the possibility of radical alternatives (the red of revolution). We must remain wary of the tepid glow of a Biden presidency won on a nostalgic reassurance of continuity—the same “sustainability” that underpins the logic of orange. “At first, Biden ran a wobbly campaign as a centrist, a meliorist, open to such reforms as an expansion of the Affordable Care Act and a reassertion of such international accords as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement,” writes David Remnick. “But, unlike his opponent Bernie Sanders, Biden would never use ‘revolution’ or ‘movement’ to describe his intentions. Having spent more than forty years in Washington, he entered the field hoping to be a candidate of restoration, compromise, and reassurance, a return to some indefinable form of ‘normal.’”41 Even as Biden appears in his early days in office to be embracing a bolder vision for change, there is still much work to be done to prevent worse fallout, and we must not falsely equate continuity with safety. As with climate change, proceeding with caution facilitates disaster: as Naomi Klein has argued, “We don’t have to do anything to bring about this future [of climate disaster]. All we have to do is nothing. Just continue to do what we are doing now. . . . And then, bit by bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting our eyes. No additional effort is required.”42 With flashing red warnings of system failure, even in the face of full-blown eggplant, the United States simply can no longer afford to renew its commitments to a capitalist baseline of orange.