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25 January

Let’s call time on the Doomsday Clock

It’s not news when someone with a loudhailer shouts that the world is doomed.

By James Ball

As headlines across the world are solemnly noting, the Doomsday Clock is at 90 seconds to midnight – suggesting the planet is closer to its end than it has ever been in the last eight decades.

When you’re talking about the future, 90 seconds isn’t a very long time. If that’s all you’ve got left of your four-minute warning, it doesn’t really feel like there’s any time remaining to avert the catastrophe. Instead, we are firmly in hug-your-loved-ones and/or send-one-last-vicious-text-to-your-enemies territory.

This should make any sane person wonder what on earth the Doomsday Clock – first conceived as a measure of how close the world was to nuclear war, now broadened to a wider range of existential threats – is actually for.

It’s certainly not empowering. The image of a mere 90 seconds remaining doesn’t energise or galvanise us – it suggests it’s too late and we should just wait for the end. Given how widely reported its annual updates are, it serves to genuinely disturb or even terrify some people, with no good productive end.

As a communication tool, it is singularly dismal. By using the metaphor of a clock, it vastly restricts itself – clocks, after all, famously only move in one direction. So when the Doomsday Clock makes its occasional jumps backwards, it is hard to know what that really means.

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In the entire history of the clock, it has never ticked back earlier than 17 minutes to midnight – which feels like having a system that judges risk on a scale of 1-100 and then never letting it drop below 99. If you’re always on red alert, you’re never actually on red alert.

The Doomsday Clock is put out by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, giving it the imprimatur of being, well, scientific. So where is the formal methodology? Has it been subjected to peer review? What do reviewers think of a system that essentially amounts to shouting “THE END IS NIGH” once a year for more than 70 years? Do we just wait for them to be correct?

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Similarly, has the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences bothered to read any of the extensive literature on how to mobilise people against existential threats? If it had, it would surely know that hope is at least as important as fear, and so its catastrophic messaging risks becoming just as much a hindrance to action as climate denialism.

There are no shortage of doomsday cults around the world, telling us that our sins are about to spell humanity’s end. They can be found in every town square, often down in the pub, and they can absolutely be found everywhere online.

There is nothing to separate the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from any of these other doomsters, except that it bangs the drum on secular rather than spiritual grounds. It’s not news when someone with a loudhailer shouts that the world is doomed, and it’s not news when someone uses a clock to send over the same message. When it comes to this stupid clock, it’s time to call time.

[See also: Karen Bakker Q&A: “I am insatiably curious about Earth’s long-term future”]

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