Posts Tagged ‘Doomsday Clock’

Be forewarned: this is long and self-indulgent. Kinda threw everything and the kitchen sink at it.

In the August 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Walter Kirn’s “Easy Chair” column called “Apocalypse Always” revealed his brief, boyhood fascination with dystopian fiction. This genre has been around for a very long time, to which the Cassandra myth attests. Kirn’s column is more concerned with “high mid-twentieth-century dystopian fiction,” which in his view is now classic and canonical, an entire generation of Baby Boomers having been educated in such patterned thought. A new wave of dystopian fiction appeared in the 1990s and yet another more recently in the form of Young Adult novels (and films) that arguably serve better as triumphal coming-of-age stories albeit under dystopian circumstances. Kirn observes a perennial theme present in the genre: the twins disappearances of freedom and information:

In the classic dystopias, which concern themselves with the lack of freedom and not with surplus freedom run amok (the current and unforeseen predicament of many), society is superbly well organized, resembling a kind of hive or factory. People are sorted, classified, and ranked, their individuality suppressed through goon squads, potent narcotics, or breeding programs. Quite often, they wear uniforms, and express themselves, or fail to, in ritual utterance and gestures.

Whether Americans in 2018 resemble hollowed-out zombies suffering under either boot-heel or soft-serve oppression is a good question. Some would argue just that in homage to classic dystopias. Kirn suggests briefly that we might instead suffer from runaway anarchy, where too much freedom and licentiousness have led instead to a chaotic and disorganized society populated by citizens who can neither govern nor restrain themselves.

Disappearance of information might be understood in at least three familiar aspects of narrative framing: what happened to get us to this point (past as exposition, sometimes only hinted at), what the hell? is going on (present as conflict and action), and how is gets fixed (future as resolution and denouement). Strict control over information exercised by classic dystopian despots doesn’t track to conditions under which we now find ourselves, where more disorganized, fraudulent, and degraded information than ever is available alongside small caches of wisdom and understanding buried somewhere in the heap and discoverable only with the benefit of critical thinking flatly lost on at least a couple generations of miseducated graduates. However, a coherent narrative of who and what we are and what realistic prospects the future may hold has not emerged since the stifling version of the 1950s nuclear family and middle class consumer contentment. Kirn makes this comparison directly, where classic dystopian fiction

focus[es] on bureaucracy, coercion, propaganda, and depersonalization, overstates both the prowess of the hierarchs and the submissiveness of the masses, whom it still thinks of as the masses. It does not contemplate Trump-style charlatanism at the top, or a narcissistic populace that prizes attention over privacy. The threats to individualism are paramount; the scourge of surplus individualism, with everyone playing his own dunce king and slurping up resources until he bursts, goes unexplored.

Kirn’s further observations are worth a look. Go read for yourself.



Previous blogs on this topic are here and here.

Updates to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists resetting the metaphorical doomsday clock hands used to appear at intervals of 3–7 years. Updates have been issued in each of the last three years, though the clock hands remained in the same position from 2015 to 2016. Does that suggest raised geopolitical instability or merely resumed paranoia resulting from the instantaneous news cycle and radicalization of society and politics? The 2017 update resets the minute hand slightly forward to 2½ minutes to midnight:

doomsdayclock_black_2-5mins_regmark2028129For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way …

The principal concern of the Bulletin since its creation has been atomic/nuclear war. Recent updates include climate change in the mix. Perhaps it is not necessary to remind regular readers here, but the timescales for these two threats are quite different: global thermonuclear war (a term from the 1980s when superpowers last got weird and paranoid about things) could erupt almost immediately given the right lunacy provocation, such as the sabre-rattling now underway between the U.S. and North Korea, whereas climate change is an event typically unfolding across geological time. The millions of years it usually takes to manifest climate change fully and reach a new steady state (hot house earth vs. ice age earth), however, appears to have been accelerated by human inputs (anthropogenic climate change, or as Guy McPherson calls it, abrupt climate change) to only a few centuries.

Nuclear arsenals around the world are the subject of a curious article at Visual Capitalist (including several reader-friendly infographics) by Nick Routley. The estimated number of weapons in the U.S. arsenal has risen since the last time I blogged about this in 2010. I still find it impossible to fathom why more than a dozen nukes are necessary, or in my more charitable moments toward the world’s inhabitants, why any of them are necessary. Most sober analysts believe we are far safer today than, say, the 1950s and early 1960s when brinkmanship was anybody’s game. I find this difficult to judge considering the two main actors today on the geopolitical stage are both witless, unpredictable, narcissistic maniacs. Moreover, the possibility of some ideologue (religious or otherwise) getting hold of WMDs (not necessarily nukes) and creating mayhem is increasing as the democratization of production filters immense power down to lower and lower elements of society. I for one don’t feel especially safe.

Readers have recently been registering hits on my blog backlog (evidenced by stats kept by WordPress in the backstage), which has prompted me to revisit a few of my older posts. (I’d say they’re “gathering dust” except that this blog is entirely virtual. Do electrons have dust?) One post particularly worth revisiting is “Doomsday Creeping Closer” about the Doomsday Clock found at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. My original provocation to blog about this was a 2007 news report of an adjustment to the clock from 7 before midnight to 5 before midnight. The metaphorical hands were adjusted back in 2010 and forward in 2012, now sitting again at 5 before midnight.

My original post was written before I had become fully collapse aware. Although already a pessimist, fatalist, misanthrope, and sometimes harsh critic, I shared many of the same illusions as the public, foremost among them the idea of a future based on historical continuity still stretching out a long way in front of us. Since then, considering how bad news (scientific findings, political gridlock and infighting, and geopolitical stresses, but most of all, accelerating losses in animal and plant populations as climate change ramps up in all its awful manifestations) keeps piling up, my time horizon has shortened considerably. Thus, I find it curious that the esteemed atomic scientists provide the following reasons for moving back the doomsday clock in 2010:

6 minutes to midnight
2010: “We are poised to bend the arc of history toward a world free of nuclear weapons” is the Bulletin’s assessment. Talks between Washington and Moscow for a follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty are nearly complete, and more negotiations for further reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenal are already planned. The dangers posed by climate change are growing, but there are pockets of progress. Most notably, at Copenhagen, the developing and industrialized countries agree to take responsibility for carbon emissions and to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.
Armageddon resulting from global nuclear war has always been regarded as a serious threat to the Bulletin going all the way back to 1947. However, I wonder what “pockets of progress” have been made on climate change? My appreciation is that, in high distinction from the usual political theater, none of the various climate talks and publications throughout the years have yielded anything other than some quasi-hysterical shrieking (handily invalidating the message) and delegates leaving without forming agreements or signing treaties. No one wants to give up the bounties of industrialism. The default is then business as usual (BAU), which ironically has historical continuity — at least until is doesn’t anymore for reasons quite beyond anyone’s control. Reasons for moving the doomsday clock forward in 2012 fare better:
5 minutes to midnight
2012: “The challenges to rid the world of nuclear weapons, harness nuclear power, and meet the nearly inexorable climate disruptions from global warming are complex and interconnected. In the face of such complex problems, it is difficult to see where the capacity lies to address these challenges.” Political processes seem wholly inadequate; the potential for nuclear weapons use in regional conflicts in the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and South Asia are alarming; safer nuclear reactor designs need to be developed and built, and more stringent oversight, training, and attention are needed to prevent future disasters; the pace of technological solutions to address climate change may not be adequate to meet the hardships that large-scale disruption of the climate portends.
Notice the tiny change in position of the hands on the clock? Neato! (I need a SarkMark () or an interrobang () there ….) The 2012 assessment is far more sober and honest, asking quite plainly “whatcha gonna do?” Inadequacy weighs heavy on our institutions and leadership, though incompetence and corruption might be just as applicable. Also, the (ongoing) Fukushima disaster has (re-)raised the specter of a nuclear Armageddon arising from something other than war. It’s notable here, too, that it’s scientists who hedgingly admit that technology may not rescue us. Further, the prospect of near-term human extinction (NTHE or NTE) as part of the Earth’s sixth great (or mass) extinction event (a process rather than a date) might be cause for the Bulletin to reevaluate the more likely cause of doomsday. Indeed, one wonders if the clock will ever register true time if no one survives to update it.

Doomsday Creeping Closer

Posted: January 25, 2007 in Culture, Health, Politics

The University of Chicago publishes the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS), which was created in the years just after World War II — 1947 to be precise. Among its other activities, it assesses the risk of annihilation from nuclear war with its most famous piece of rhetoric: the Doomsday Clock, which charts the threat by adjusting the minute hand of the clock figuratively a few minutes toward or back from midnight, which represents a “time’s up” mark. (Oddly, the graphical representations I’ve seen are usually timelines or xy coordinate graphs, not actual clockfaces.) The Doomsday Clock was back in the news a few days ago, when the minute hand was adjusted from 7 minutes to 5 minutes until midnight.


What’s interesting about this latest adjustment is that global warming has apparently overtaken nuclear weapons as the greatest threat to civilization. I’ve insisted for years that global warming operates on a geological time scale, making it nearly impossible to predict or observe from within the bubble of our much smaller human timescale, but the phrase is nonetheless used to describe the climate change (warming trend) we are currently experiencing, which occurs on an observable timescale. This is probably the case because climate change is a global effect, even if the warming/cooling trends take thousands of years to fully observe (at least in the past). Warming due to climate change will probably take some years yet to manifest fully — 30 to 50 seem to be typical estimates — and its full fury, or its effect on humankind, will take a bit longer than that as the ecosystem continues its collapse in stages. But there appears to be little doubt that it’s going to happen.

What’s especially curious to me is that it was predicted and warned against long ago, as early as the late 19th century, in fact, when petroleum and other fossil fuels were just beginning to be used in industrial quantities. The mainstream media, in its collective wisdom, has only just recently determined, however, that the story bears telling, as the issue has now reached a level of undeniability and consensus that the public has gotten interested (but not yet motivated to act). I saw one top story of 2006 that says global warming has finally been demonstrated. A little late to the party, I think.