The Problem with the Metronome Climate Clock

Eliza Sutton, Assistant Managing Editor

On Saturday, September 19th, at 3:20 pm, the Manhattan Metronome clock changed its display.

The Metronome is a digital clock that has been hanging in Union Square for over two decades. Rather than be a practical clock, however, it’s intended to be a public art piece, and for much of the last twenty years it has displayed a time either counting down the minutes to or from midnight, albeit in a very confusing manner.

Recently, a countdown (exact to the second) of how much time is left before the effects of climate change become irreversible has replaced its traditional function. When the clock began counting down, it read seven years, 103 days, fifteen hours, 40 minutes, and seven seconds until climate change impacts will become irreparable. The implication of this display is that when the countdown reaches zero, the climate crisis caused by humans will proceed to render the world unlivable, while we are powerless to do anything about it except try to mitigate the effects as they come with increasing intensity.

The real fate of the climate lies in the actions of a small handful of powerful corporations, whose practices have a worldwide impact and are detrimental to global long-term sustainability.

This new clock display blew up across the internet. While I appreciate the intent of the art piece, I believe it does more harm than good. Above all else, the audience is largely a miss. The clock is stationed in the middle of a busy area full of pedestrian traffic. While of course, everybody should aim to incorporate more sustainable practices into their daily life, the people who pass by this clock (and those who view it on social media) will, for the most part, be common individuals, not the executives at corporations who are the largest culprits of ecologically destructive practices.

The real fate of the climate lies in the actions of a small handful of powerful corporations, whose practices have a worldwide impact and are detrimental to global long-term sustainability. Some corporations are Peabody Energy, American Electric, and Ameren, energy corporations, and ConAgra Foods, a food corporation. All of these corporations are on the Newsweek list of the fifteen worst companies in the world for the environment, all operating in ways that result in massive-scale greenhouse gas emissions and largely without plans in place to improve their practices.

These corporations know that their actions are unsustainable and unjust. They sacrifice the well-being of future generations and the health of our planet for their own personal, temporary gain. The clock will probably not sway them if they even see it in the first place, but if anyone deserves to be bombarded with guilt and terror in the hopes that it works, it should certainly be them and not people on the daily commute to their job at Nordstrom Rack.

Nonetheless, the people walking by the clock every day are essentially being bombarded with their own ineffectuality, forced to watch a countdown to their inevitable doom that they likely are already aware of, and feel almost completely helpless against.

Regardless, I appreciate the motivation behind the installation. Climate change is an extremely important issue, and seeing the clock reach a large enough audience that people, powerless as individuals, could band together and make a genuine difference, would be incredible.

However, given that the clock has already followed the rise and fall of its minute fame, typical of brief viral sensations, it seems unlikely that that uprising will happen now, of all times. Still, it would be picky and foolish to overly undermine a genuine effort at incentivizing people to work against climate change. I only wish these artists had put their clock outside Jeff Bezos’ window, or that of the CEO of Ameren, instead.