A vital tradition with global significance transpired this week, when a new time was posted for the Doomsday Clock under the guidance of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a magazine of science and public affairs founded by Manhattan Project scientists in 1945.
The timekeeping ritual began in 1947 to provide a rational correlative for measuring the potential risk of global destruction, as the magazine’s first editor wrote, “in the dreadful illumination of the atomic bomb.” The new time unveiled (link) Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington moved the minute hand forward 30 seconds, from three minutes to midnight to two-and-a-half minutes from doom.
Even such a small adjustment marked the advent of the most perilous moment for the planet since 1953, according to the Bulletin board. That was when, nine months after the United States tested the first hydrogen bomb, the Soviet Union responded by testing a hydrogen device of their own. “Only a few more swings of the pendulum,” the Bulletin announced, “and, from Moscow to Chicago, atomic explosions will strike midnight for Western civilization.”
For 70 years, the big hand has never been more than 17 minutes away from midnight according to the stewards of the Doomsday clock that the Bulletin has adopted for its logo. The most recent period at that level was in 1991, the year the Cold War ended and the wall that divided East and West Germany came tumbling down. Compared to the current time, 17 minutes may seem like a sanctuary.
Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, the trend has zig-zagged downward depending on the appearance of progress in arms control agreements, more or less relaxed geopolitical tensions, and whether populist rhetoric was running hotter or colder. Meanwhile, whole new threats have arrived.
Most obvious, if not yet universally acknowledged, has been global warming with rain bombs, superstorms, melting ice sheets and rampant flooding, among other high profile disasters, made worse by national and world governmental failures to confront the challenges of climate change.
Threats from newly emerging technologies including cyber and informational warfare and the weakening of democratic institutions have become more pernicious in the current time frame. Lethal autonomous weapons systems authorized to make their own “kill” decisions without human mediation and advances in synthetic biology raise specters of monstrous new kinds of artificial life and corrupted genetic material.
The word “existential” comes up frequently in discussions aboutnuclear weapons. The word comes from a Latin word for existence, and the adjective existential basically means a threatened existence.
For example, the Doomsday clock statement says,“Without good governance, including appropriate regulation, these threats could emerge in coming decades as existential—that is, dangerous to the whole of humanity or to modern civilization as we know it.”
A nuclear Iran is said to pose an existential threat for Israel, and the U.S. poses an existential threat to Iran and, for that matter, the rest of the world, as a major nuclear weapons powerhouse. At the same time, a sudden exchange of a hundred Hiroshima-sized bombs between Pakistan and India, according to studies by three American Universities, could pose an existential threat to a hundred million people in the Northern hemisphere.
Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering participated in the decision about the new Doomsday clock and discussed the announcement. He said that among the things that bothered him, “The first has been the cavalier and reckless language that has been used around the globe, especially in the United States during the Presidential campaign.” He said there was a dangerous disrespect for science and expert advice. “Words matter in insuring the safety and security of our planet.”
Lawrence Krauss, an author and professor at Arizona State University sounded a similar note, when he paraphrased the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous observation, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
The quandary of survival leads to absurd contradictions. The global union of parliaments known as the Inter-Parliamentary Union once had to caution military planners against an argument for maintaining a nuclear deterrence in order to counterbalance the threat of a cyberattack.