The Doomsday Clock: What Does It Mean? How Doomed Are We?
We hear a lot about the Doomsday Clock ticking closer and closer to "midnight," which is when we're all doomed, but what does that really mean? During the Cold War, the world was three minutes to midnight, yet here we are. In further misunderstanding of how minutes work, we hit three minutes again in 2015. Five years later, the Clock struck 100 seconds, less than two minutes, to midnight for the first time ever. Exactly how are we calculating this? Is there a real clock? Who's behind it, and when did it start?
Is there an actual clock, and is it ticking?
There is, in fact, a clock that hangs in the University of Chicago that physically represents the Doomsday Clock, but it's just a metaphor for our slow dirge toward extinction. Rather than counting down the literal seconds to the apocalypse, it reflects the level of "continuous danger" in which the world finds itself on a day-to-day basis. Depending on the year or era in which the clock is being discussed, "midnight" can mean a variety of things, but it always means that we're toast. No number of Soldier of Fortune magazines or cans of tuna will do anything to help.
After World War II, scientists decided that a countdown to the end of the world was necessary
Following the end of World War II, the Atomic Scientists of Chicago, a group of international researchers who worked on the Manhattan Project, decided that the world was on its way to total and complete destruction. Following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ASC started publishing a newsletter called Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to discuss changes in the dangers that mankind faces. Sometimes, it's nuclear war. Other times, it's climate change. In the future, it might be some brand-new horror that people today couldn't dream up in our worst nightmares. Whatever we're dealing with, the group meets every year to determine whether the clock has moved forward or backward.
The clock's hands don't move without deep thought
When the clock ticks closer to our doom, it's not just because a hurricane has hit or a pandemic has swept across a continent. When the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has their annual meeting, which is open to whoever wants to attend, the researchers (also known as the Science and Security Board) debate each crisis that the world is facing and weigh them all against each other to estimate exactly how close humanity is to extinction.
In 1953, the Clock was set to two minutes to midnight following the news that the U.S. and the Soviet Union had begun testing hydrogen bombs. It's likely that in 1962, the Clock would have come just as close to midnight during the Cuban missile crisis, but that particular catastrophe came and went before the annual meeting. In 2017, the Bulletin explained how a divisive election can bring the world closer to destruction:
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board takes a broad and international view of existential threats to humanity, focusing on long-term trends. Because of that perspective, the statements of a single person—particularly one not yet in office—have not historically influenced the board's decision on the setting of the Doomsday Clock ... Wavering public confidence in the democratic institutions required to deal with major world threats do affect the board's decisions. And this year, events surrounding the US presidential campaign—including cyber offensives and deception campaigns apparently directed by the Russian government and aimed at disrupting the U.S. election—have brought American democracy and Russian intentions into question and thereby made the world more dangerous than was the case a year ago.
The Clock is still used to make a point to world leaders
The researchers at the Bulletin aren't using the Clock just to freak people out. The hope is that politicians and other decision-makers will take potentially disastrous events seriously and maybe stop them somehow. In 2020, when the Doomsday Clock moved 100 seconds to midnight, it was specifically due to hostilities between world superpowers. The Bulletin's executive chairman, Jerry Brown, explained:
The dangerous rivalry and hostility among the superpowers increases the likelihood of nuclear blunder ... Climate change just compounds the crisis.
The countdown isn't slowing down
If you've read the news recently, you won't be surprised that the Clock is ticking ever closer to humanity's extinction. In the 21st century, it's not just the vague threat of war that's bringing the world to the brink of destruction but our ignorance of global climate issues and nuclear tensions between the U.S., Russia, North Korea, and other countries that are champing at the bit to make an appearance on the nuclear stage. The Bulletin states:
Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by ... cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society's ability to respond ... World leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.
Are we doomed?
"Doomed" is a colorful term, but in the Fight Club sense that everything ends if given enough time, yeah, we're kind of doomed. At 100 seconds to midnight, things are happening that your average person can't fix, in addition to a ton of existential issues that no one can honestly fix. If we want to pull the planet back from destruction, according to the Bulletin, world leaders need to reinstate the INF Treaty, rededicate themselves to the Paris climate agreement, and restrain nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, but the international community also needs open a multilateral dialogue to establish normal behavior. It's a wonder that any of us can get out of bed at all.
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