In Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1964 satire Dr. Strangelove, it just takes one errant general in command of nuclear bombers, plus American and Soviet policies of “mutually assured destruction,” to trigger worldwide catastrophe. The darkly hilarious film dwells on risks that remain today, including the possibility of an automated launch system or a single person with access to nuclear codes bringing about a deadly mushroom cloud.
For 75 years, the Doomsday Clock has been drawing attention to risks to human existence. Developed by researchers and policy experts at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who also started a magazine by that name, the clock started running in 1947, just two years after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Japan. It’s not literally a clock; it’s a graphic image of one, and it’s a potent symbol for scientific watchdogs and activists. It has had an effect on pop culture too; it’s been referenced by musicians from Sting to the Smashing Pumpkins to Iron Maiden, and in everything from Watchmen comic books to Doctor Who on TV. Its initial purpose was to highlight the dangers of nuclear war, but that mission was later expanded to encompass other primarily human-made crises that threaten civilization. Initially set at seven minutes till “midnight,” it’s now perilously set at just 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to the end of humanity. On Thursday, as Bulletin members celebrate the clock’s 75th anniversary, they will update the time again, when it could tick slightly toward or away from the apocalypse.
“The Doomsday Clock has been called the most iconic piece of graphic art of the 20th century, and I think it’s proving to be as powerful in the 21st. It speaks to the power of the combination of art and science,” says Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. To mark the anniversary, Bronson and her colleagues have also compiled a Spotify playlist, made a doomsday-themed drinking guide, and Hat & Beard Press will publish a book co-authored by Robert K. Elder and JC Gabel this spring about the clock's design and pop culture impacts.
Chicago-based artist Martyl Langsdorf designed the clock in the wake of World War II, working with her husband Alexander Langsdorf, a Manhattan Project physicist, and other researchers who helped get the fledgling Bulletin off the ground. The Doomsday Clock’s experts have the unenviable job of identifying and weighing potential apocalypses, as well as our progress as a society—or lack of it—in avoiding them. They started the clock when nuclear conflicts were on everyone’s minds following the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where bombs had killed as many as 210,000 people and injured and sickened many more with cancer-causing radiation. The clock’s minute hand ticked back and forth over the decades, following the development of even more destructive hydrogen bombs, cases of nuclear false alarms, and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps the most dangerous standoff in history.
The arms race between the United States and the former Soviet Union led to the countries amassing huge arsenals of the most dangerous weapons of war, peaking at around 60,000 of them during the 1980s. Today, there are “only” about 9,000 nuclear weapons left worldwide, but that is still enough to exterminate humanity many times over.
“The nuclear threat has not gone away in any shape or form,” says John Mecklin, editor in chief of the Bulletin. “Use of any significant number of those nuclear weapons would alter civilization in a terrible way. Whether through accident, miscalculation, or terrorist use, the likelihood that there will be nuclear explosions is high enough that our board considers it extremely worrying.”
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Eryn MacDonald, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists’s Global Security Program, who is unaffiliated with the Bulletin, agrees with that assessment. “The US has kept a lot of the Cold War-era policies that are just completely outdated, like having its ICBMs on ‘hair-trigger alert,’ when they can be launched from silos in minutes, like maintaining a ‘sole authority policy,’ where the president is the one person who has the authority to order the launch of a nuclear weapon. And we have never said we will not be the first to use nuclear weapons” in a conflict, she says.
In 2016, US president Barack Obama began a $1 trillion nuclear modernization program, which appears to have had the effect of encouraging rivals like Russia and China to build up their own arsenals. His successor, Donald Trump, added so-called “low-yield” nukes to the mix, weapons that can be launched from submarines and have nearly the explosive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Between them, Trump and George W. Bush withdrew the US from all but one arms control treaty with Russia. Nuke ownership has proliferated as well, including among Israel, North Korea, India, and Pakistan. Conflict between the latter two is still a potentially dangerous flashpoint, MacDonald says. For these reasons, she believes that on its 75th birthday the Doomsday Clock should stay where it’s currently set, just over a minute and a half until midnight.
But that’s not the only existential threat the experts at the Bulletin’s science and security board worry about. In 2007 they expanded the clock’s scope to include any human-made global threat, with an emphasis on climate change. “It's about human civilization as we know it. Our food systems, our water systems, our supply chains, our infrastructure, our economy, our geopolitical systems—that is what is at risk from climate change,” says Katharine Hayhoe, a Texas Tech University scientist and author of Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. (She is unaffiliated with the Doomsday Clock and the Bulletin.)
So from a climate perspective, Hayhoe says, the clock should now shift a bit closer to midnight. “During the pandemic, our emissions temporarily dropped by about 7 percent during 2020,” she says. “But according to the International Energy Agency, we’ve ticked back up again, and then some. Rather than putting on the brakes, reducing heat-trapping gas emissions, we actually sped up.”
Bronson and her colleagues also have been considering other threats as well. While the pandemic isn’t poised to wipe out humanity, it’s a harbinger of threats to come, as other, even more dangerous viruses may jump from animals to humans. New kinds of disruptive technologies, including cyberweapons, biological weapons, artificial intelligence, and drone weapons might also carry larger risks than some people realize. And the science and security board is looking into the willful use of disinformation as a threat multiplier, she says.
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Since the beginning, the Doomsday Clock has worked as a communication tool, a way to draw attention to huge, thorny problems that perhaps aren’t taken seriously enough. Thursday’s announcement will include a number of speakers, notably Hank Green, the science communicator and YouTube vlogger. But Bronson and Mecklin also hope the clock spurs people to ask questions, get engaged, and take action. Mecklin takes inspiration from the Nuclear Freeze movement, which played a role in the 1980s in changing nuclear policy in the Soviet Union and United States. “That could happen today in any of the areas that we cover,” he says.
Hayhoe tries to point people toward possible solutions, knowing that they can feel paralyzed by fear and despair when thinking about a potential global apocalypse. “We have to have the two sides of the coin when we message. The first side is the risk and why it matters. And the second is the response, what we can do about it,” she says. She believes the Doomsday Clock is particularly effective at raising awareness about the risks, and communicating ways people can get involved is just as important.
In Dr. Strangelove, people engineer devices of their own destruction. One of the general’s B-52 bombers strikes a target in the USSR—only to set off a Soviet “doomsday device” that detonates bombs all over the world. (“It is not a thing a sane man would do. The doomsday machine is designed to trigger itself automatically,” the Russian ambassador says in the movie.) The message of the Bulletin is to inspire the dismantling of such machines, to turn back the clock before it’s too late.
Update 01/20/2022 1:00 PM ET: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists's science and security board announced today that they'll keep the Doomsday Clock set at 100 seconds til midnight. In their statement, they cited continuing and dangerous threats posed by nuclear weapons, climate change, disruptive technologies, and Covid-19.
Updated 01/19/2022 1:00 PM ET to reflect Katharine Hayhoe's current job title and to correct the spelling of Alexander Langsdorf's name.
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