The “doomsday clock” was created in 1947 by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, an organization of University of Chicago scientists who participated in the Manhattan Project that built the first atomic bomb. It is of course a symbol, a metaphor, “using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero), to convey threats to humanity and the planet.” Originally limited to a symbol of the threat of atomic disaster, it has over the years broadened to “monitor the means humankind could use to obliterate itself. First and foremost, these include nuclear weapons, but they also encompass climate-changing technologies and new developments in the life sciences that could inflict irrevocable harm.”
In January of this year, the Bulletin moved the hands on the clock to five minutes to midnight. In a press release, the Bulletin set out the reasons for doing so:
It is five minutes to midnight. Two years ago, it appeared that world leaders might address the truly global threats that we face. In many cases, that trend has not continued or been reversed. For that reason, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is moving the clock hand one minute closer to midnight, back to its time in 2007.
Commenting on the Doomsday Clock announcement, Lawrence Krauss, co-chair, BAS Board of Sponsors, foundation professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration and Physics departments, associate director, Beyond Center, co-director, Cosmology Initiative, and director, New Origins Initiative, Arizona State University, said:
“Unfortunately, Einstein’s statement in 1946 that ‘everything has changed, save the way we think,’ remains true. The provisional developments of two years ago have not been sustained, and it makes sense to move the clock closer to midnight, back to the value it had in 2007. Faced with clear and present dangers of nuclear proliferation and climate change, and the need to find sustainable and safe sources of energy, world leaders are failing to change business as usual. Inaction on key issues including climate change, and rising international tensions motivate the movement of the clock. As we see it, the major challenge at the heart of humanity’s survival in the 21st century is how to meet energy needs for economic growth in developing and industrial countries without further damaging the climate, exposing people to loss of health and community, and without risking further spread of nuclear weapons, and in fact setting the stage for global reductions.”
The farthest the minute hand has been to that big “12″ was 17 minutes, back during the first Bush administration in 1991. The timeline for the clock explains that, in 1991, “With the Cold War officially over, the United States and Russia begin making deep cuts to their nuclear arsenals. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty greatly reduces the number of strategic nuclear weapons deployed by the two former adversaries. Better still, a series of unilateral initiatives remove most of the intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers in both countries from hair-trigger alert. ‘The illusion that tens of thousands of nuclear weapons are a guarantor of national security has been stripped away,’ the Bulletin declares.”
How we skipped over that 12 minutes in the ensuing twenty years is the story of the second part of Jonathan Schell’s The Seventh Decade, a discussion of which will continue shortly.