Doomsday is closer than we think but do we care?

The Doomsday Clock is no more just a symbol of the dangers that humanity faces. It reflects an immediate and real threat that could be worse than fiction

By TP Sreenivasan

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Published: Tue 31 Jan 2023, 10:19 PM

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS) moved the two hands of the Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to the midnight hour (the moment of annihilation of mankind) in January 2023, the closest it ever reached near 'doomsday'. Surprisingly, it did not make important global news, not to speak of global panic. Coming as it did at the time of renewed warnings about another wave of the pandemic, threat of use of tactical nuclear weapons and warnings of impending climate disasters, the news resulted in a global shrug and a humming of Doris Day’s song, “Que sera sera, Whatever Will Be, Will Be.”

When the members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set up a symbolic Doomsday Clock in 1947 to measure the distance between a particular moment and total annihilation of the world, they were only thinking of an all-out nuclear war, which might erase the human race from the face of the earth. The two hands of the clock were moved back and forth on the basis of a number of factors such as new advances in nuclear technology, expansion of the nuclear club, the number of tests conducted by nuclear weapon states, recovery of nuclear elements, reported and unreported, tensions among the nuclear weapon states, progress or otherwise in arms limitation talks and other related developments. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the threat to use nuclear weapons, tactical or otherwise, by President Vladimir Putin raised the level of anxiety as a fruitless war raged on endlessly.

Over the years, however, other man-made actions came to the forefront, making humanity more vulnerable, such as the emission of greenhouse gases, creation deadly viruses and the threat posed by technological disruption, put forward by Yuval Harari at Davos in 2020. Covid-19 introduced a new sense of mortality on account of co-morbidities, leading to the dispensability of human life after a certain age. T.S.Eliot appeared to dismiss the big bang theory altogether by predicting that “This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper. “ The sense of insecurity appears to mount in the minds of men."

The BAS Science and security board, which includes 13 Nobel Laureates said the clock moved, in large part, because of the war in Ukraine. Ominously, the announcement was made available in Russian and Ukrainian languages in addition to English. "Russia's thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons remind the world that escalation of the conflict - by accident, intention, or miscalculation - is a terrible risk," it said. It also pointed to the biological risks. And as the world continues to experience the fallout from Covid-19, the board said that world leaders will need to continue to identify and address biological risks, whether the origin is natural, accidental or intentional. A pandemic, the board said, is no longer a once-a-lifetime risk.

In 2020, the clock hands were moved 100 seconds closer to midnight. In 2021 and 2022, the clock hands stayed at the same place. The farthest away the clock hands have ever been was right after the end of the Cold War - at 17 minutes from midnight. Even though they stand closest ever to perdition, the BAS itself stated that though there is an unprecedented situation in theory, humans can reduce the risks with global engagement.

The Bulletin's Clock is not a gauge to register the ups and downs of the international power struggle; it is intended to reflect basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age. The degree of a likely Armageddon in the future makes the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs appear mere toys. The minutes and seconds cannot be measured in time as they reflect an emotional reaction to a perception of the threat.

Doomsday Clock Symposia are common when panelists discuss various issues on the topic "Communicating Catastrophe". "Midnight" has a deeper meaning besides the constant threat of war. There are various elements taken into consideration when the scientists from The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists decide what midnight and "global catastrophe" really mean in a given year. They might include "politics, energy, weapons, diplomacy, and climate science.” Climate change, bioterrorism and artificial intelligence are considered as potentially harmful to mankind as nuclear weapons.

The Doomsday Clock is no more just a symbol of the dangers that humanity faces. It reflects an immediate and real threat that could be worse than fiction. Theories of deterrence have receded as no one knows the extent of damage that Covid-19 and the food and energy crisis on account of the war can inflict on mankind. In real life, grave injuries generate their own anaesthetic agents to soften the pain. Perhaps, humanity has developed a similar immunity to fear and stares at the Doomsday Clock with a sense of resignation and disbelief.

- The writer is a former Indian diplomat

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