On January 24, history was made again. That day the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists ran the second from the Doomsday Clock to midnight. He is now «90 seconds» away, the closest he has ever been to the symbolic global catastrophe.
The announcement, made during a press conference held in Washington DC, was made in English, Ukrainian and Russian. The issued statement described this moment in history as «a moment of unprecedented danger.»
The Science and Safety Council of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is in charge of moving the hands of the Doomsday Clock. These leading experts focus on the dangers posed by potential man-made catastrophes, emanating from nuclear risk, climate change, biological threats and disruptive technologies.
The Doomsday Clock is the most graphic representation of these threats, and the act of turning the clock forward represents the clear and urgent need to watch what is happening.
In 2021 and 2022, the clock hands will be placed at 100 seconds from midnight. Since this timekeeping exercise began in 1947, the announcement of January 24, 2023 represents the closest the clock has ever come to the end: a clear wake-up call.
Threats over time
In 1945, a group of scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project—an American atomic weapons research project—came together to form the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
In the late 1940s, the new threat of nuclear weapons cast a dark cloud over the world. The Doomsday Clock was intended as a warning to humanity about the dangers of this technology. Later, in the 20th century, it was expanded to consider other threats of human origin.
In 1991, the clock was set at 17 minutes past midnight, the farthest it has ever been from doomsday. This change came after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by the United States and Russia. During the 1990s, the world felt somewhat safer.
In the 2010s, we came very close to the brink of nuclear war, although not as close as now.
US relations with other nuclear powers such as Russia and China were increasingly strained. The nuclear deal with Iran had been abandoned, affecting the geopolitics of the Middle East. The threat from North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has entered an alarming new phase. Coupled with the dangerous rhetoric of former President Donald Trump and the global rise of the far-right, everything pointed to a tumultuous time in the 2020s.
In 2023, the global crises we face have devastating consequences and potentially longer lasting effects. Our current moment is unsustainable, especially as catastrophic threats multiply and intensify.
The crises are piling up and ranging from the Russian invasion of Ukraine with Vladimir Putin’s thinly veiled nuclear threats to the social and economic tensions still present in the third year of the covid-19 pandemic. These are unprecedented challenges to human survival.
As the Doomsday Clock is now 90 seconds to midnight, the situation adds stress to an already anxious world population.
In Europe, fears of covid-19 were quickly replaced by fears of nuclear war.
The anxiety produced by the fear of dying is related to nuclear anxiety, and the threat of nuclear war caused by the daily headlines could shape the way we think and act.
Nuclear weapons cause special existential anxiety, as weapons of mass destruction have the potential to eradicate cultures, lands, languages, and entire lives. In the event of a nuclear attack, the future would be altered in ways that would be inconceivable for us to process.
The philosopher Langdon Winner wrote that «during the post-World War II era, in a sense all of us became unwitting subjects of a vast series of biological and social experiments, the results of which only slowly became apparent.»
For those who grew up during the height of the Cold War in the mid-20th century, and up until the early 1980s, the resurgence of these concerns has an air of deja vu. In order to counteract this recurring fear, coping tools include limit exposure to the media, reach out to others, cultivate aggression, and change routines.
The time to act is now
The meaning of the Doomsday Clock as a metaphor is a graphic symbol of the multiplication of man-made dangers. As midnight approaches, the urgency of the threat intensifies.
Whether or not we live in one of the nine nuclear-weapon nations, we have all become unwitting subjects of the experiment that began with the detonation of the first atomic weapon.
In 2023, the Doomsday Clock tells us that we are a metaphorical 90 seconds away from self-inflicted extinction. Time is short.