climate change

Don’t set your Watch by the Doomsday Clock

The Doomsday Clock, a global symbol of the potential demise of humanity, stayed at 100 seconds to midnight, the same time originally set in 2020, to mark the beginning of 2022.

To which I say, “Do I feel like soup or a sandwich for lunch today?” Because the Doomsday Clock can safely be ignored. It is certainly not something I would ever set my watch to. Part of me wonders if it’s even worth writing about. But, here we are. Maintained since 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the doomsday clock is counting down to a hypothetical midnight when the human race will… end? Collapse? Go extinct? I mean, it is counting down to doomsday, so whatever is supposed to happen at midnight, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists expects it to be catastrophic.

The Doomsday Clock was originally designed to gauge the likelihood of nuclear war. It ticked closer and closer to midnight throughout the 1940s and ’50s, reaching two minutes to midnight in 1953 when nuclear tests were being conducted by the United States and the Soviet Union. That was as close as it would ever get to midnight until 2018. There were no treaties or bans of developing nuclear weapons. To the credit of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, it must have been a frightening time and they were right to sound alarmist.

However, after that, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists started feeling better about everything and the clock began winding back to earlier in the evening. In 1960, the clock moved five minutes from midnight due to efforts to resolve crises (like the 1956 Suez Crisis and the 1958 Lebanon Crisis) without nuclear weapons. The clock went unchanged until 1963, when it would leap back another five minutes after the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty.

Yippee! We did it! Wow! So was there world peace and no crisis involving nuclear weapons between 1960-63? No nuclear stockpiling? Things were getting better all the time?

Um. No.

Let’s go back to 1962. The Doomsday Clock was at a jovial seven minutes to midnight. Sounds great, right? Everything was just dandy.

Except for the Cuban Missile Crisis, of course.

Yes, while the Doomsday Clock was moonwalking away from the apocalypse, Russia and America avoided nuclear war by inches because Vasily Arkhipov, the commander of the Soviet submarine Flotilla, a B-59 submarine, would not authorize launching a nuclear missile at the United States while his submarine was under attack from the U.S. Navy blockade. His refusal was quite possibly the key decision that averted nuclear war. It came down to one man’s decision not to escalate. It must have been a terrifying moment. Yet, the Doomsday Clock merrily skipped backwards from midnight in 1963.

The doomsday clock swung back and forth over the next thirty years, more akin to a doomsday pendulum than a clock. In 1990, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists took enormous cheer at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and were elated by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, putting the clock at a comfortable 17 minutes to midnight. I mean, Some scholars thought the 1990s signaled the “End of History” and that we’d live in an unchallenged and mundane world for the rest of time. But we showed them!

More recently, the Doomsday Clock represents a hodgepodge of threats to humanity. From nuclear weapon anxiety, to the threat of climate change, the possibility of developing dangerous AI, or new advances in cyberwarfare. In 2020, the Doomsday Clock hit a new record at a mere hundred seconds (1 minute and 30 seconds) to midnight. I readily agree that 2020 was a profoundly unpleasant year. But are we really mere moments away from the end of the world? So close to our demise that we don’t even have time to listen to Justin Bieber’s shortest song (a cover of Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, incidentally) one final time?

No. The Doomsday Clock is the opinion of a collective who cannot see the entire scope of the world, every effort being undertaken to make the world a better place, and they cannot know the hearts and minds of the people charting a course for the future. I agree that the world looks very bleak at time of writing, and possibly even darker looking ahead at the challenges we will face this century. but suggesting we are 100 seconds from the midnight of our species isn’t helpful. In fact, I think it is rather irresponsible. Telling humanity ‘you’re doomed’ is less helpful than asking what we can do to make things better. To the best of my knowledge, the Doomsday Clock is not based on mathematical modelling. It is not the voice of an omnipotent narrator, counting down to our final chapter. It is a group of scientists asking themselves, “do we feel doomed?” At the moment, they do.

Having said that, if the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, climate change, the state of democracy, corporate debt (how is Everglade doing these days? I can’t remember when I last read an article about it), the state of the economy, or anything else outside of your control has you anxious or depressed, you can always talk to someone. That will serve you far better than reading about a grumpy (but effective) marketing stunt by a collection of atomic scientists. Whether it is a friend, a family member, a colleague, or reaching out to a professional, communication can accomplish a lot. Meanwhile, watching the clock, doomsday or otherwise, can just cause stress. Let’s disregard the Doomsday Clock for the rest of the year, as well as next year, and talk about plans for the future. I expect to be out long before midnight, but I’d love to chat about things before then. To keep up with my ideas until the apocalypse, feel free to subscribe below:

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