By Jason Cox
The end is nigh, there’s fire in the sky! Or perhaps not. There is an age old tradition of letting nostalgia get the best of us when we look at the past, making us believe that the time of yesteryear was always one of better morality, and better life. What better time to discuss this now that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has decided this last week to push the Doomsday Clock up to three minutes from midnight?
The Doomsday Clock is a concept developed in 1947 by a group of scientists to give a visual representation of how close humanity is to global catastrophe. This is signified by pushing the minute hand forward or back depending on how many minutes we are from “midnight” and total destruction. The clock was originally designed to refer to the threat of nuclear war brought on by the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Over the last several decades the clock was set from a dangerously close two minutes to midnight on the eve of U.S. and Soviet testing of thermonuclear weapons, to its low in 1991 of 17 minutes to midnight after the fall of the Soviet Union. Each jump signified progression or regression in the area of nuclear disarmament, and weighed the entry of new nuclear states.
In 2007, this board of scientists elected to include the threat of climate change into their considerations, and have moved the clock based on emissions treaties, as well as the development of new technologies. This last week, upon consideration of apparent rising tensions with Russia, perceived failures in curbing climate change, and a stall in nuclear détente have led the Bulletin to push the clock towards three minutes to midnight. Is this decision really merited, or is this just another nostalgic glaze over what the world was like before?
Everyone knows someone who laments how unsafe the streets are for children today; despite the fact violent crime is approaching record lows. We decry supposed increases in inequality, while many of the poorest in this country live better now than the richest did not even a full century ago with access to amenities like the Internet, as well as ample cheap food production. The fear of terrorism crowds our news media, even though your chances of being struck in a terror attack are four times less than getting struck by a bolt of lightning. Diseases that once ravaged the human population are now largely non-existent in most parts of the world.
Are we really now just as close to nuclear conflict as we were in 1949, or 1984, the last two times the Doomsday Clock was set this close to midnight? It doesn’t seem likely. Governments across the world are far more aware of the unwinnable nature of nuclear war, and despite saber-rattling by some states, no one is foolish enough to pull the trigger on an all-out war. The threat of climate change, while without a doubt being a long term problem with potentially disastrous environmental consequences, does not produce near the same level of immediate world-ending catastrophe.
This decision by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is a puzzling one at best. Humanity’s progress towards eliminating its ills has almost exclusively been in a positive direction. New technologies point towards a far better future in combating disease, environmental concerns, and even the tearing down of barriers that lead to war. While there will always be problems dragging us down as we move into the future, climate change among them, we as a species are now likely farther than we’ve ever been from extinction. Perhaps we’ve finally moved to the point where instead of asking how close we are to midnight, we can now say we might never reach it at all.