The Doomsday Clock: Apocalypse soon?
“Do you hear a faint, foreboding ticking off in the distance?” asked Oliver Roeder in FiveThirtyEight.com. Alarmed by increasing nuclear tensions with North Korea and Iran, climate change, and the belligerence and unpredictability of President Trump, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its metaphorical Doomsday Clock ahead 30 seconds last week. It’s now set at two minutes to midnight, marking the closest humanity has theoretically been to annihilation since 1953, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested the first hydrogen bombs. The clock is set by the Bulletin’s science and security board, which weighs existential threats to humanity, including nuclear war, a global pandemic, and malevolent artificial intelligence. The group includes experts in cybersecurity, nuclear policy, and environmental science, with multiple Nobel laureates among them. And they’re very worried.
Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric is admittedly alarming, said Michael Cohen in The Boston Globe, but the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is overreacting. Are we really closer to Armageddon than we were during the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert? The reality is that the chances of nuclear war with North Korea remain “incredibly small,” because Kim Jong Un knows that any use of his nuclear arsenal would result in a devastating counterattack. The Doomsday Clock “is more a public relations device than a calculation of real-world probabilities,” and it does no one any service by exaggerating and oversimplifying the risks we face.
“Yes, the clock’s a gimmick,” said Rachel Becker in TheVerge.com. Even its creators acknowledge that it’s impossible to come up with a precise indicator of existential risk. But it’s “the gimmick we need.” The point is to get people talking about the urgent issues facing humanity, whether it’s rising oceans, killer robots, or nuclear destruction. Good luck with that, said Robinson Meyer in TheAtlantic.com. One of the most depressing things about last week’s announcement is that it underscores just how numb Americans have gotten to the daily deluge of disturbing headlines, from melting ice caps to Russia’s election hacking to the ongoing military buildup on the Korean Peninsula. “So when a board of experts tells them that catastrophe is at hand, they read the news and think: Yep. And then they wonder what’s for lunch.” ■