The idea is very simple, as reported in today’s Le Monde. Midnight on this clock is the moment at which the planet collapses into the chaos of a probably humanity-ending nuclear war, or an equally disastrous global environmental catastrophe. Cheerful stuff.
Each year, a team of scientists, ecologists and security specialists meet to consider just how bad things are, and they either advance or retard the minute hand on their symbolic clock to give us an indication of how close we are to the end of everything.
The “clock” has been bizarrely ticking, backwards and forwards, since 1947, in the wake of the nuclear horrors in Japan which brought the Second World War to an end and replaced it with the Cold War.
In 1947, the clock was set at a sober seven minutes to midnight.
A variable view of human horror
We’ve had good years and bad years since.
The original idea was for a 15-minute range, but in 1991, the experts decided things were so bright and breezy that they’d have to go back to 17 minutes, literally off the dial.
This, remember, was the Papa Bush-Gorbachev period, the official end of the Cold War. There were still 27,000 nuclear warheads in the freezer, enough to blow the planet to atoms, there had very nearly been a hardline military coup in Russia, which would have put the button under some nervy fingers. But the scientists nonetheless felt that the planet was entering a new and optimistic era.
The optimism didn’t last too long.
Good years, bad years
By 1998, we were back to 9 minutes from permanent closing time. That followed the entry of angry neighbours India and Pakistan into the nuclear-armed family.
In 2015 we had just three minutes left, with unchecked climate change, weapons spending and the threat of cybercrime all making contributions to the sense of insecurity. Now, we’re reckoned to be 120 seconds from the end.
Climate security and the nuclear scrapheap are still major concerns, and fake news is considered to pose a substantial threat to our confidence in political structures and scientific inquiry.
Even science itself is now seen as a danger, the report’s authors saying that “new global governance structures are desperately needed to manage rapidly evolving and potentially dangerous technologies.”
No cause for optimism
The fact that the clock has been stopped at two minutes since last year is not to be taken as an optimistic sign, warns the 2019 report. We have, in fact, entered a period of history which is being called “the new abnormal”.
Fake news continues to have a major destabilising effect on a globe ravaged by climatic disorders and still home to a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons.
The start of a dialogue between Trump of the US and Kim of North Korea is clearly a step in the right direction as far as the nuclear threat is concerned, but tensions remain too high between Washington and Moscow.
Fake news creates anger and division at a time when the world needs unity and calm, according to Rachel Bronson, director of the organisation that keeps the clock ticking.
The danger of mixed metaphors
And Jerry Brown, former Governor of California, now president of the apocalypse clock committee, says he is shocked by the “blindness and stupidity” of political leaders and their advisors on the nuclear issue.
According to Brown, we’re like the passengers on the Titanic, enjoying the food and the music, unaware that the iceberg is out there in the dark.
It's a bit of a metaphorical stretch, from the ticking clock to the sinking ship, but you get the picture. Whatever way you look at it, things are not going terribly well.