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Friday, January 23, 2015

The boy who cried 'Doomsday'

Posted By on Fri, Jan 23, 2015 at 7:37 AM


In case you missed it, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists changed their "Doomsday Clock" to three minutes to midnight on Thursday. Maintained since 1947, the Clock is a symbolic assessment of the current probability of global catastrophe, with the hands being moved closer to midnight (aka Doomsday) depending on a variety of factors, such as potential for international conflict and environmental degradation. It's the closest to midnight the Clock has been since 1984, with the closest in its history being just two minutes to midnight in 1953.

In other words, we're all fucked. Right?



Who knows. A more pressing question might be: Is the Clock even all that useful of a tool in communicating how fucked we are in the first place? It seems like an oversimplification of a complex matrix of threats. Maybe the problem is that the Clock is a weird metaphor — clocks are supposed to move in a linear fashion, at a uniform speed, not back and forth depending on what time a committee thinks it ought to be. Unless maybe it's supposed to be more like a timer? But then timers don't count down to midnight, they count down to zero.

While the BAS issued a full press release breaking down their assessment, the standalone page for the clock is much more vague:

Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth.” Despite some modestly positive developments in the climate change arena, current efforts are entirely insufficient to prevent a catastrophic warming of Earth. Meanwhile, the United States and Russia have embarked on massive programs to modernize their nuclear triads—thereby undermining existing nuclear weapons treaties. "The clock ticks now at just three minutes to midnight because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization."

Notice the orphaned quotation marks in there? Look, we know we're not immune to the occasional grammatical error over here either, but do you think maybe you guys could be proofreading your announcement of the impending apocalypse? 

The Clock has never been any further from midnight than it was in 1991, when it was set to 17 minutes to Doomsday. In other words, according to the Clock, we've been teetering on the brink of extinction for 67 years. It's arguably as flawed as the old color-coded terror alert level, which was perpetually stuck on either Yellow ("Significant risk of terrorist attacks") or Orange ("High risk of terrorist attacks") throughout two Bush administrations and one Obama administration. Maybe we just need to set a new baseline: When the boy is crying "Wolf!" all the time and there's no wolf you tend to eventually just tune him out.

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