The Doomsday Clock and Why We Are Not On the Eve of Destruction…Yet.
Almost everyone (and almost certainly everyone who reads Medium) has heard of the Doomsday Clock. Very few people realize that there are no statistical algorithms behind the placement of the minute hand on the Doomsday Clock, which purportedly represents how close we are to the Apocalypse. Here’s an explanation of the how the Doomsday Clock actually works, taken directly from a press release from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
Founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock two years later, using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet. The decision to move (or to leave in place) the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made every year by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 15 Nobel laureates. The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and new technologies emerging in other domains…
The impetus for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists came from two of the most prominent “atomic scientists” of the nuclear age, Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer. Originally published on a mimeograph machine, and now available only in digital form, the Bulletin’s current Board of Sponsors consists of 35 individuals, most of whom you’ve never heard of, including 13 living Nobel Laureates. Past Sponsors included a diverse selection of historical figures, including many Nobel laureates and one science fiction writer, the late Arthur C. Clarke.
The Bulletin was first published in 1945 in direct response to the use of nuclear weapons against human beings. The Doomsday Clock was introduced in 1947, two years before the Russians detonated their first nuclear device in 1949. The Clock was supposed to tell us how close the arms race was getting to a nuclear war, but it was actually created before there was an arms race. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists only releases reports on the status of the clock when there is a change in the clock’s setting, which is why there is no data for a number of years.
In 1949, the Clock was reset to three minutes before midnight, reflecting the emergence of the Soviet Union as the world’s second nuclear power. In 1953, during the Korean War, the clock was set to two minutes before midnight, reflecting the tests of the world’s first thermonuclear weapons tests in 1952 and 1953, by the United States and the Soviet Union. The Doomsday clock might also have been influenced by General Douglas MacArthur’s attempt to force President Harry Truman to allow the use nuclear weapons in Korea to even the odds against the numerically superior Chinese army.
The people responsible for this piece of Cold War claptrap reset the clock again in 1960 — at the height of the Cold War — to seven minutes to midnight, for no apparent reason.
The planet made its closest approach to an actual nuclear exchange in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when — according to numerous accounts — we really did come within minutes of an actual nuclear war.
One might have thought that the Doomsday Clock people would reflect the Missile Crisis by resetting the minute hand to one minute before midnight. That didn’t happen. The nuclear clock didn’t gain or lose a second until 1963, when it went UP to 12 minutes before midnight. The official word from the Atomic Scientists was that this reflected the ratification of the Partial Test Ban Treaty.
In 1991, the Clock stood at 17 minutes to midnight, the least threatening year on record but, starting in 1995, during the Clinton administration, the clock began to slide back toward oblivion, ticking down from 14 minutes to midnight in 1995 to just two and a half minutes to midnight in 2017. This year, they reset the clock to two minutes before midnight, which hasn’t been set that close to midnight since 1953.
But wait just a minute. (Pun intended.) Didn’t the Soviet Union collapse in 1991? (Yes, it did. At least we think it did.) If the Communists had been sent packing and we no longer had an ideological bone to pick with the Russians, why does the clock keep ticking?
Well, there are two reasons for that.
THE FIRST REASON is that the Russians have long memories and never forget a grudge. Their grudge against the United States dates back to 1918, when U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, in an alliance with England and France, sent the U.S. Army’s 339th Infantry Regiment to Russia (under British leadership) in an attempt to prevent communist revolutionaries from taking over the country. The 5,000 man expeditionary force was withdrawn a year later, having lost ten percent of its complement. Ever since that fiasco, the Russians have never really trusted Americans, a distrust that has survived the end of the Soviet state. Post-Soviet Russian leaders still hate post-democratic American leaders.
THE SECOND REASON is that, in 2007, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists decided to include global climate change in the non-existent algorithm used to determine the position of the minute hand on the clock. (I’m calling the algorithm non-existent because the Atomic Scientists don’t even claim that there is one.)
Since making that change in 2007, with one blip in 2010, the minute hand on the clock has been inching toward midnight but it’s not because anyone actually believes that there is a nuclear holocaust breathing down our necks. On the contrary, the current position of the minute hand reflects the beliefs of the people who decide where to place the minute hand that we are heading for a cliff because of the presence of climate change deniers in the Republican Congress and the Trump White House.
Having climate change deniers in charge of the federal agencies charged with combating air pollution cannot be a good thing…but that doesn’t mean that we are just two minutes away from the Apocalypse. Thermonuclear war is something that could happen at any time, including RIGHT NOW, without warning, but economic, social and environmental collapse resulting from climate change will take decades to play out. It doesn’t happen immediately. At some point, we will pass that point of no return — if we haven’t already — but, since we don’t know exactly when that will happen and might not even notice when it does, it’s hard to base the movements of the Doomsday Clock on a catastrophe for which we do not have a due date.
In the meantime, whenever the Doomsday Clock gets reported by the media, everyone assumes that the clock is still about an impending nuclear war when, in fact, the clock is actually reflecting the fears of climate change enthusiasts as well as nuclear war fear-mongers. The people assume this because the MSM (mainstream media) never bothers to report that the Clock is no longer about nuclear war per se but is really also about global climate change in addition to global thermonuclear war.
Regardless of the fear mongering by the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists, we are not on the verge of a nuclear war for one of two reasons. (Take your pick.)
Reason Number 1: Economic Stupidity Isn’t That Widespread
If you add up the total value of Russian investments in the United States, it comes to a very significant number. The same is true for the Chinese. Add up the total value of their collective business interests in the United States — not forgetting to include the value of the Chinese goods purchased by American consumers — and you will find that a serious percentage of the net wealth of both nations is invested in the United States. Similar analyses apply to most of the oil kingdoms, although they have been reducing their investments in the United States. You don’t set fire to a wheat field if you actually own 20 percent of the wheat. Doing so is the height of economic stupidity, pure and simple.
(The Russian and Chinese governments have recently reduced their investments in American Treasury bonds but those investments are a small piece of their total personal and corporate investments in American resources, and the Chinese are still highly dependent on American consumer markets.)
Reason Number 2: Nuclear Weapons are Obsolete.
Yes, obsolete. Completely and totally obsolete. They have been obsolete since 1962, when the term “mutually assured destruction” was coined by Donald Brennan. That term encapsulated the problem. The two biggest players in the nuclear arms race each had enough nuclear weapons to totally destroy each other. The bad news was that the nuclear war in question would also destroy all life on earth. several times over.
You don’t burn down your house to rid the house of fleas. Going to war with nuclear weapons only destroys everything on both sides, forever. It was a no-win situation and both sides recognized that.
In more recent years, nuclear weapons have become even more obviously obsolete because there are other weapons that are just as effective but don’t destroy the infrastructure or sterilize the planet. These include bacteriological, economic, social, political and cybernetic weapons of mass destruction, otherwise known as germs, recession, social media, spoofed voting machines and hacks into our cybernetic infrastructure. Cybernetic attacks alone could collapse our electrical grids, shut down airports, crash every commercial aircraft in the air, cripple nuclear reactors, fry the internet, and disrupt mass communications. They are also much cheaper to implement than nuclear wars are.
The United States, after living under the threat of nuclear war for almost 70 years, still does not have an adequate civil defense system capable of protecting the American people in the event of a thermonuclear war (unless we really did build that Star Wars Missile Defense System after all.) Read that as, “no adequate bomb shelters, no stored supplies and equipment in non-targeted locations, no effective border controls against man-carried nuclear devices” and so on and so forth. You don’t need a rocket to deliver a nuclear device. Any boat, plane, truck or suitcase will suffice. The Star Wars Missile Defense System, to the extent that it was developed, if it was ever developed, was always a pork barrel boondoggle.
As bad as our protective systems are against a nuclear attack, they are even worse when it comes to defending ourselves against disruptive attacks on our electronic infrastructure where, in many cases, we have none at all.
I know some of the people who are charged with defending the United States against cyber warfare. I don’t think it would not be breaking any confidences to say that they are scared shitless, and they think you should be too.
The next world war will not be fought with tanks and planes, drones and aircraft carriers — or nuclear weapons. World War III will be fought with computer keyboards with our hackers pitted against their hackers. We may have better hackers because we wrote the software they are hacking, but they have more hackers than we do. More always beats better.
Albert Einstein was quoted as having said, “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”*
We’re one up on Uncle Albert. At least we now know which weapons will be used to fight World War III.
Nevertheless, I remain convinced that, sooner or later, nuclear weapons — either as thermonuclear devices or as dirty bombs — will be used against the United States. These weapons will be dispatched by non-state actors against whom our nuclear weapons will be useless, because they have no countries to bomb, unless we want to make the Iraq mistake again by attacking the wrong country in retaliation for an attack against us.
Unfortunately, if or more likely when that happens, given the current state of American politics, it is quite likely that we will retaliate against someone or other with nuclear weapons, after which various treaties will come into effect and the whole ball of wax will melt down into an unholy mess.
Nevertheless, regardless of which weapons World War III is fought, World War IV will still be fought with sticks and stones.
No one ever said that the world was a safe place.
* Quoted from an interview with Alfred Werner, Liberal Judaism 16 (April-May 1949), Einstein Archive 30–1104, as sourced in The New Quotable Einstein by Alice Calaprice (2005), p. 173
Snopes.com, however, goes to great lengths in an attempt to debunk this piece of folk wisdom, claiming (a) that Einstein never said it, (b) that he may have spoken several different versions of the same sentiment at different times, and (c ) that, even if he did say it, other people said it first. Nevertheless, Snopes actually cites the exact article in which the Einstein quote was originally reported, which raises more questions about Snopes than it does about Uncle Albert.