Alan Zendell, January 24, 2023
Several scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War 2 established the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and its iconic Doomsday Clock after atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Midnight on the Doomsday Clock represents the annihilation of life on Earth, and every year since 1947, scientists have reset the Clock’s time to reflect current world conditions. Originally, the Clock was used as a signpost for the risk of nuclear war, but in recent years the time resets have also reflected the incidence of plagues and pandemics, the likelihood of biological warfare, the condition of the world food supply, climate change, and the stability of major governments.
When the Soviet Union exploded its first hydrogen bomb in 1953, the Doomsday Clock was set to two minutes to midnight, the first time it had been that close to The End. As the Cold War dragged on, the minute hand gradually receded until, after arms limitation treaties were put in place and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it was set to seventeen minutes to midnight. Since then, however, the rise of terrorism, nine-eleven, and ever-increasing tensions with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, caused the time to creep back toward midnight.
In 2018, nuclear tensions and inaction on mitigating climate change resulted in the clock being set to two minutes to midnight for the second time, where it remained in 2019. Trump’s trade war, the weakening of NATO, and a huge increase in cyber-attacks and the spread of false information caused the Bulletin to reset the clock to 100 seconds to midnight in 2020; COVID and its resulting impact on world economies kept it there through 2022. Today, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the daily risk of escalation of that conflict came home to roost, as the Doomsday Clock was set to ninety seconds to midnight for 2023, the closest it has ever been to total annihilation.
Does that mean we’re doomed? Certainly not. The Doomsday Clock is a metaphor, but one we ignore at our peril. In the minds of some of our most brilliant scientists, we are closer to destroying ourselves than ever before. The good news is that Europe and the NATO alliance are more united than they’ve been since the Berlin Airlift in 1948. That’s surely a better situation than one in which Putin is allowed to create havoc throughout Europe, with China, Iran, and North Korea licking their lips in anticipation of the fall of the West. But it also increases the risk of direct confrontation between the world’s nuclear powers, and Putin rattles his nuclear sabers every time his military suffers a setback in Ukraine.
There are also a lot of other ominous signs. Since Trump’s MAGA movement took hold, our democracy has been under siege, and it’s not just in America. Hungary leans more toward Fascism every year. That and the recent attempted coup in Brazil, mimicking Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election are warnings we can’t afford to disregard. If you’ve felt that the world seemed to be spinning out of control lately, perhaps what you’ve been sensing is the minute hand moving ominously closer to 12:00.
We don’t have to look beyond our own borders to see worrisome signs. America is in the throes of major change, and it’s impossible to know where it will lead in the end. Will MAGA recede into the annals of history, or in the worst case, will it come storming back to wreck our democratic institutions? Less chilling, but still very dangerous, is the likelihood that our political divisiveness will paralyze our ability to act decisively, or worse, convince our allies that they can no longer rely on our leadership. If the newly elected Republican leadership in the House is willing to threaten to limit military aid to Ukraine, to bring us to the edge of default, and to prevent any meaningful legislation from being passed, that can only embolden our enemies, and emboldened enemies are prone to making rash decisions that blow up in everyone’s face.
We could take the view that there’s nothing we can do to keep the Clock from ticking toward midnight, but that would be a tragic mistake. There’s a lot we can do as individual Americans, because America is the most important stabilizing force in the world. We must find a way to silence those who seek public office, not to defend our Constitution, but to undermine it for their own profit and power. Pundits like to tell us all politics is local, but if fringe districts with petty grievances keep putting people in Congress who don’t even recognize the sanctity of our elections, then maybe we are doomed, after all. Even the cockroaches might not survive this time.