Doomsday. It’s a scary word. And, really, it’s meant to be.
Hopefully, the end of the world won’t happen for a very, very long time. And, if nature was to have its way, it probably wouldn’t. We’re talking billions of years here.
However, after around 3% of the world’s population was wiped out in the awful events of World War 2 (just two short decades after World War 1 took 4%), scientists decided that humans were enough of a risk to themselves and the world that a man-made civilisation-ending catastrophe was viable.
And so, the Doomsday Clock was born out of a small office in Illinois.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – a nonprofit organization that reports on science and global security issues relating to technology – was created in 1945. The dropping of nuclear bombs of Hiroshima and Nagishaki led to a group of scientists banding together to inform everyone of the dangers that humans and their actions pose.
Two years later, they created the Doomsday Clock. The clock, which also resides in Chicago, Illinois, served as a reminder and metaphor for how close humanity is to total destruction. The main things considered are nuclear weapons and climate change.
The concept of the clock is the closer the hand on the clock is to midnight, the closer humans are to an extinction level threat.
The Clock has changed 27 times since its creation. The Board, which currently has 11 Nobel laureates amongst its members, has been meeting to make the decision since 1973. Prior to that, it was the original Bulletin editor, Eugene Rabinowitch, until he died that year.
When it was first created, it wasn’t intended to be an ongoing item. It was simply a visual on the cover of that year’s Bulletin magazine with the aim to imply the dangers faced. However, from then on, it became a tradition.
Let’s look at some of the highlights of the Doomsday Clock at some of the most critical points in modern history.
1949 – This was the first time the Board changed the Clock. After being set at 7 minutes to midnight the year it was created, 1949 saw it being nudged forward to 3 minutes.
In 1947, the clock was set at that time because the designer of the cover, Martyl Langsdorf, said, “it looked good to my eye.”. 1949 was the first year it was a reflection of world events.
That year, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, consequently starting what we now recognise as the nuclear arms race.
Despite this, the 1949 entry maintains that “the Soviet production of atomic bombs has no chance of equalling ours [USA]’s,” which explains why the clock wasn’t even closer to midnight.
1953 – The first, and only, entry of the 1950s was a sombre one. And it was one that brought humanity closer to midnight by one minute. It now sat at 2 minutes.
Since the beginning of the decade, the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the USA was in full swing. But now, the Soviet Union had detonated a thermonuclear bomb at a test site. This came less than a year after the US developed its own.
It’s clear that, at this point, the advantage America believed it had on Russia over the last two decades was shrinking.
1963 – Ten whole years after one of the closest calls humanity has had (according to the clock). The clock is now at 12 minutes to midnight.
Three countries sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty; the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. This bans the “testing of nuclear weapons in space, underwater, or in the atmosphere”.
The Bulletin also lists what they describe as “common interests” which could bring the US and the USSR (as it was then called) together. These included political stabilisation, science, and technological advancements.
1968 – Late into the 1960s, it seemed that the optimism of 1963 had pretty much disappeared. The Clock sits at 7 minutes to midnight.
America was now putting more of their budget towards weaponry and the Vietnam War. All the while, they cut down on foreign aid, urban rehabilitation, and scientific research all in the same breath. Despite the fact that they could afford all of them.
Similarly, the US began drafting men into war. Few people have put it more powerfully and scathingly than the Bulletin that year:
“Much of the power in the world is now […] in the hands of men convinced that they have the right […] to send millions to die and to kill other millions.”
1972 – Almost a decade before, the Bulletin set the Clock at 12 minutes to midnight. Now, despite the slight waver in the late 1960s, the early 1970s saw the Clock return to that position.
The presence of nuclear weapons still loomed over much of the world. However, President Nixon and Soviet leader Brezhnev joined together for the SALT Agreements. That is, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. This put a limit on the number of nuclear missiles that could be produced in either country.
The hands of the Clock were, once again, at their furthest point from midnight yet.
1981 – It became apparent quite soon into the 1980s that this decade would not follow the way of the 1970s. Entering the new decade the Clock was pushed forward to 4 minutes to midnight.
After the initial SALT Agreement, a second one soon followed. The second one focused on MIRVs (Multiple Independently Targeted Re-Entry Vehicles) which the first SALT Agreement had not served to limit. In 1979, they signed the treaty.
However, the Bulletin’s recap of the last couple of years spoke of how the treaty was already frequently ignored. Nuclear weapons were described as being “rapidly deployed” in Europe by both the East and the West.
There was also despair at the decreasing help given to ‘Third World Countries’ by ‘First World Countries’.
With Iraq and Iran butting heads, China testing bombs, and ongoing fighting in Afghanistan, it seemed like no one was safe. Or, as the Bulletin put it, “no part of the world has been wholly free of increasing hostility and conflict.”
1991 – Despite the misgivings of the previous decades, the 1990s saw a fresh start. In 1991, the Clock in the Illinois office sat at an unbelievable 17 minutes to midnight. Unbelievable, because the Clock was originally only designed with a 15-minute range. No one believed that humanity would be so far from destruction in our lifetimes.
Perhaps the biggest factor in this decision was the ending of the Cold War. The War was four decades of the East and West racing towards nuclear dominance.
The Soviet Union and USA revived SALT, despite the apparent lack of success. However, this time, the US announced the withdrawal of thousands of tactical weapons. In contrast, the previous SALT agreement saw a reluctance on both sides to part with weapons first, seemingly due to a large sense of mistrust between the nations.
This was soon followed by the Soviet Union who agreed upon similar actions and indicated that they would also suspend nuclear testing. This same country was also in the process of collapse, with Russia emerging out of it which put them in a rather vulnerable position.
1998 – In spite of the optimism that the decade started with, the clock was set at 9 minutes to midnight on June 11th 1998.
That year, hostility between India and Pakistan reached a high. This led to both countries testing nuclear devices in the same year.
After 1991, hopes were high that the East and West would both continue to reduce their nuclear efforts. This appears to have come to a halt by the end of the decade. A test-ban treaty was actually opened up to all countries in 1996 and 149 nations signed. However, two years later only 13 nations had actually validated their signing of the treaty.
2007 – Seven years into the new millennium, things weren’t looking particularly positive. Now, the Clock was at 5 minutes to midnight.
Once again, there were signs of increasing danger and hostility between countries across the world. Concern was once again growing in regards to nuclear weapons as the world stood “at the brink of a second nuclear age”.
North Korea was now testing nuclear weapons, Iran had clear ambitions towards developing nuclear weaponry, and the US and Russia still had over 26,000 nuclear weapons between them. For the first time in years, it seemed a threat of nuclear war was once again creeping closer.
Not only that, but concerns surrounding climate change were growing amongst scientists. According to the Bulletin, the dangers of climate change were now “nearly as dire” as nuclear dangers.
2015 – When the clock stood at 3 minutes in 2015, the only time it had been closer to midnight was in 1953.
Now, that progress towards a safe and peaceful world was, at best, slowing down. At worst, it was coming to a grinding halt.
Efforts to reverse climate change were “insufficient”, global nuclear weapons were at an all-time high, and the disarmament process had stopped.
Two years prior, The 5th Doomsday Clock Symposium took place. The board members travelled from Illinois to Washington D.C. to take their places on panels where they would express their concerns to the public.
2020 – In 2020, the Doomsday Clock hit 100 seconds to midnight.
The report makes note of threats from climate change and nuclear warfare once more. On top of this, there is now the growing issue of “cyber-enabled information warfare.”
2021 – The time stayed the same a year later in 2021. Covid-19 appeared to play a big part in this judgement.
Covid, according to the board, “revealed just how unprepared and unwilling countries […] are to handle global emergencies properly.”
The outbreak and ongoing pandemic subsequently gave a platform to “false and misleading” information about the virus. Meanwhile, the same was said about Donald Trump’s “stolen” election, which gave way to a period online which was rife with conspiracy theories.
The 2021 attack on the US Capitol by thousands of the former President’s supporters followed this. Four people would die on the day, and another would die the following day. In the ensuing months, another four officers would die by suicide.
As the Bulletin states, “in 2020, online lying literally killed.”
2022: For the third year in a row, the Clock is now at 100 seconds.
It was agreed that US policy under the new leadership had included improvements to climate change. Plus, “science and evidence” had now regained a place in the policy, too. Advancements had been made on the nuclear front since the beginning of 2021, including the decision to renew New START.
However, the Board pointed out that US relations with China and Russia remain tense. For them, it was important to warn of the potential for another nuclear arms race.
Iran is still stockpiling uranium, China is building new ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) silos, and China and Russia are testing anti-satellite weapons. There were also mentions of the tension between Russia and Ukraine. Especially since Russia deployed troops to the border.
All in all, in 2022 we are closer than ever to catastrophe.
The Clock and Board may seem to do little from their place in the University of Chicago, Illinois. However, all they can do is warn us and those who lead us about their predictions. Some of which, unfortunately, come true.
As we all know, since the publication of the 2022 edition of the Doomsday Clock, the tension between Russia and Ukraine has come to a head. The conflict has already taken lives, and displaced millions of Ukranians. There have even been accusations of war crimes committed by Russia.
And, if NATO intervenes, we will almost certainly be facing a nuclear war.
The Bulletin released a statement on March 7th reiterating what they said in their January 2022 Doomsday Clock report about Russia and Ukraine. It was clear that they, and many others, had anticipated the invasion of Ukraine happening. Yet, nothing was done to prevent or prepare.
Right now, it seems the world is balancing precariously over irreversible terrority.
As they said, this is what 100 seconds to midnight looks like.
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