Since 1947, the organization Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been counting minutes to midnight (and lately seconds) as a gauge of global risk. The effort emerged with the intensifying Cold War risk of nuclear catastrophe.
The clock hands have wiggled away from doom or back 24 times since then, with a big wiggle of relief, for instance, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Lately they’ve ratcheted forward as more threats have emerged or interlaced, including global warming, the online disinformation explosion and anti-democratic zeal.
The particular focus is the threats humanity poses to itself through reckless use of the technologies our species has explosively developed in the past century and which — so far — have helped us thrive in astonishing ways. And that’s the tension here. How long does the party last — and for whom? Mutually assured destruction led to sustained peace. Fossil fuels have so far produced vastly more thriving than suffering. So far.
Since the pandemic took hold in 2020, the clock has been stuck at 100 seconds to midnight.
Where do we go from here, as the project enters its 75th year?
Today at 10:00 a.m. U.S. Eastern Time you can watch the announcement of this year’s clock setting, which is determined by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board with input from a Board of Sponsors (an external assemblage of luminaries including more than a dozen Nobel Prize laureates). Watch live on the Bulletin website or their Facebook page.
As the clock-setting team has long stressed, the hand setting is a metaphor more than a solid metric.
As I’d note, we’re all playing on a field fogged by persistent deep uncertainty, allowing a host of interpretations and prescriptions. Response diversity facing big challenges is both desirable and inevitable. The philosopher Phil Torres wrote a helpful exploration of that debate for The Bulletin magazine and also read the anthropologist Dean Falk’s great Sapiens essay.
At 3:30 p.m. Eastern today, join me in a special Columbia Climate School Sustain What webcast with members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday” team and some remarkable friends who spend all their waking hours focused on how to manage both foreseeable and unforeseeable threats:
Jeff Schlegelmilch, author of Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to 21st Century Megadisasters and director of Columbia’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. (Schlegelmilch just presented testimony to a House subcommittee on how to prioritize spending facing an array of public health and disaster threats.)
Bina Venkataraman, author of The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age, and editorial page editor of The Boston Globe.
All of my guests have appeared on previous sessions of my Sustain What webcast and I guarantee you’ll find their perspectives invaluable.
I’m asking you the same questions I’ll be asking them:
Is it time to move beyond measuring the probability of doom to something else? If so, what? (Click here for a clue to my thinking.)
Where would you set the clock hands if you think this is a useful gauge?
- How would you answer the smart Bulletin of Atomic Scientists “Turn Back The Clock Challenge?