Each January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists greets the new year with a readout of its Doomsday Clock, an allegorical timepiece created in 1947 to illustrate our species’ proximity to the apocalypse. The announcement of the time—with human civilization in its eleventh hour—tends to arrive amid considerable fanfare, especially in these tempestuous times.
This morning, the annual unveiling revealed that the clock’s hands remain fixed at two minutes to midnight. Though that’s as close as we’ve ever been to catastrophe, the clock didn’t tick forward since last year. It should have. The Doomsday Clock’s stasis, which implies a level of danger unchanged from 2018 and on par with that of 1953, fails to reflect the growing complexity of the threats we face today.
p class=”paywall”>Dignitaries present at the ceremony, including former California Governor Jerry Brown, cited a “perfect storm” of developments imperiling our world, including rising nuclear competition, increasing carbon emissions, numerous diplomatic setbacks, and unchecked information warfare. They referred to our current time, inches from midnight’s reckoning, as the “new abnormal.” Doomsday, once the prerogative of Mother Nature and Cold War superpowers, has gotten a lot more complicated—and intractable.
When the Doomsday Clock first adorned the bulletin’s cover in the years after World War II, the atomic bombs that had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh memories. Many of the scientists who had taken part in the Manhattan Project found in their retrospection a sense of terror at the creation they had wrought, a weapon capable of ending the lives of untold thousands in an instant. They sought to warn the world of the destruction this new specter portended.
Theirs was an ill-fated cause, as we now know. The first Soviet nuclear detonation in 1949 ushered in a new era of atomic politics and, with time, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. The Doomsday Clock ticked forward that year, to three minutes to midnight, then again in 1953, when the Soviet Union echoed the United States in its testing of a thermonuclear weapon.
Subsequent decades witnessed a perilous nuclear arms race, as well as a frightening number of near-misses. Over time, international agreements and other precautionary measures provided some degree of safety. It was dumb luck, though, more than anything, that staved off global annihilation.
The risk of existential catastrophe, unfortunately, did not disappear with the end of the Cold War. In fact, the danger appears today to be on the rise. International arrangements that have long helped the world to avoid a nuclear exchange are fraying, as the Trump administration threatens to abandon the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. More recent measures to curtail risks from weapons of mass destruction—most notably, the Iran Deal—are unraveling as well. But as much as nuclear weapons remain a menace, today they comprise only one of many threats to humanity’s survival.
Over the decades, the litany of natural phenomena that could spell catastrophe for our species has grown. Terms such as “supervolcano” have entered popular usage, and hazards such as gamma ray bursts have become subjects of astronomical study. Luckily, natural events with civilization-ending potential are rare.
Far more alarming than the prospect of any natural disaster are the threats that we’ve unleashed through our own technological wizardry. Developments in biotechnology augur a world in which the barriers to malevolent (or accidental) bio-catastrophe are much reduced. Lower costs of laboratory equipment and easier access to information and materials are poised to enable do-it-yourself biologists to reconstruct old pathogens and create novel ones, to deadly effect. Canadian researchers recently underscored this possibility when they synthesized horsepox virus using mail-order DNA.
Complicating matters further is the tendency for technologies to converge and interact in unexpected ways. As Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., a scholar at the defense-oriented Hudson Institute, detailed recently, developments in areas such as cyber warfare and rocketry—and even the social sciences—are eroding the fundamental assumptions that underlie nuclear deterrence theory. Foundational concepts like escalation ladders, which describe the steps that lead to conflict, fail to capture the complex dynamics of a threat-space that encompasses numerous empowered actors with the means to enact mass destruction.
At play are two interrelated trends. Technology’s expanding frontiers ensure the influx of new weapons capable of wreaking havoc in the wrong hands. Concurrently, as the costs of cross-border interaction become more negligible, the buffers of time and distance that have separated disparate groups are disappearing.
Brown’s presence at this year’s Doomsday Clock announcement is instructive. The former governor was named executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists late last year, underscoring the proliferation of catastrophic threats on an all-too-finite planet. His bugbear of anthropogenic climate change, which the bulletin came to consider an existential risk in 2007, has contributed to the onset of our planet’s sixth mass extinction.
The problems bedeviling the biosphere have become so intractable that leading thinkers are flirting with the idea of reengineering the planet to forestall catastrophe. As carbon emissions rise again after a years-long plateau, scientists are contemplating injecting aerosols into the stratosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth’s surface, along with various other geoengineering techniques. Such measures, which seem more reasonable with each new heat wave or drought, could alter weather patterns and inflict harm on a global scale.
With yesteryear’s fossil-fuel-guzzling technologies, we transgressed several planetary boundaries, imperiled vast portions of the biosphere, and ripened the conditions for sociopolitical instability. With today’s emerging technologies, we are embarking on a course toward greater destructive capacity—with neither a moral compass nor a political roadmap suited for the journey.
Technology, of course, brings opportunities alongside its perils. And not all catastrophic risks pose truly existential dangers. But this only adds to the difficulties of discerning a path forward. As we wrestle with how best to direct our innovative efforts, the problems that we confront and the complexity of the questions that we must answer are sure to increase, even as rampant misinformation degrades our trust in fundamental institutions.
Although the Doomsday Clock did not progress this year, there is no halting or turning back time. Our dangers are undeniably growing. Whatever the clock reads in the years ahead, we are already far removed from the comparatively simple worries of the atomic scientists.
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