The Bulletin of [the] Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock forward by 30 seconds, to two and a half minutes to midnight.
—from The Economist Espresso world-in-brief report, Friday morning
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists used to be concerned mainly with the nuclear threat. In its many articles and its Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin addressed such issues as the chilly standoff between the world’s two major nuclear-armed superpowers as each developed new defensive and (more often) offensive systems, the dangers of proliferation as other countries developed nuclear weapons, and so forth. Broadly speaking, it has been worried all along about the fate of the earth, but it tended to view that fate in nuclear terms, as did Jonathan Schell’s book of that name. And the Bulletin’s Clock was adjusted annually on that basis—with regard to whether events of the past 12 months had moved the world closer to or farther from atomic death and destruction.
When the Bulletin itself was established, in 1945, by scientists and others who had worked on the Manhattan Project, and when the Doomsday Clock was introduced, in 1947, and for a long time afterward, the focus on nuclear weapons made sense, but eventually—some might say belatedly—the focus expanded. As an FAQ on the Bulletin’s site explains with regard to the Clock, “The Bulletin considered possible catastrophic disruptions from climate change in its hand-setting deliberations for the first time in 2007.” And the Bulletin currently conceives its aim more broadly still: to “[inform] the public about threats to the survival and development of humanity from nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging technologies in the life sciences.” Nukes, the consumption of fossil fuels, and gene splicing are all within its purview now, but in fact it goes beyond even that, to include computing technologies. The Doomsday Dashboard page gives a concise overview, much of it in graphical form, of the present situation. There, you can see at a glance that a huge amount of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium exists, almost all of it in Russia and the United States; that the United States has a greater problem with the security of nuclear materials than any other country in the world, to judge from the number of incidents during the 2010–2015 period; that the sea level, atmospheric carbon dioxide, and average temperature have all been rising; and that a handful of other threats, from CRISPR to AI, lurk at the bottom of the page, less prominent for now but not to be ignored.
If you’re old enough, a glance at the dashboard’s graphs might lead you to recall a cheerful exclamation by Country Joe and the Fish: “Whoopee! We’re all gonna die!” Anxiety might be in order, but it’s far more likely that you won’t die and will instead have to face the consequences of what our leaders and others are doing. In assessing the world and the position of the Clock, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin considers not only the technologies that we’ve built—our weapons and our cars and our computers and the like—but also our other actions. An old and rather silly distinction has it that what people say is one thing and what they do is another, but in fact speech is an action. To say or to write or to publish something is decidedly to act in the world, and the opening page of this year’s Clock statement makes that clear in no uncertain terms:
In addition to the existential threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, new global realities emerged, as trusted sources of information came under attack, fake news was on the rise, and words were used in cavalier and often reckless ways. As if to prove that words matter and fake news is dangerous, Pakistan’s foreign minister issued a blustery statement, a tweet actually, flexing Pakistan’s nuclear muscle—in response to a fabricated “news” story about Israel.
If you read only the news summaries of this year’s Doomsday Clock announcement, you probably missed the full breadth of the reasoning behind the decision to move the hands of the Clock closer to midnight. The Economist’s Espresso account on Friday, for instance, mentioned only “Donald Trump’s ‘unsettling’ and ‘ill-considered’ comments about the use of nuclear weapons, growing concern over North Korea and worries about relations with Russia.” The thinking goes further than that. The full account is 18 pages long, though part of that is devoted to biographies of board members and to a recap of changes to the Clock’s position. The statement does indeed express concern, at length, over Trump’s remarks, his rejection of expert advice, and his appointments, as well as the actions of Russia and North Korea. But it’s not about three countries; it takes a global view of nuclear weapons, climate change, nuclear power, emerging technologies, and the role of experts and citizens in reducing risks. The advice for citizens is, in fact, encouraging. The statement says, “Because we know from experience that governmental leaders respond to public pressure, we also call on citizens of the world to express themselves in all the ways available to them— including through use of the powerful new tools of social media,” and it follows that up with a specific list of demands we can make.
In some ways, I’d prefer a more practical and concrete analysis. The statement declares nuclear power to be “an option worth careful consideration,” and it notes the obstacles in general terms, but it could’ve said more about the problems and possible solutions with existing fission reactors. They waste much of their uranium fuel, which new approaches could reduce; designing them from scratch every time is much more expensive than using a pre-approved, standardized design would be; and the impasse over waste storage is a danger of its own. Similarly, where newer threats are concerned, the general statement that “Sophisticated hacking…has the potential to create grave and large impacts” could’ve been buttressed with a reference to particular occurrences beyond the U.S. presidential election, such as the DNS attack that blocked Netflix and Twitter last October, which could instead have shut down something more crucial. But I may be wrong to expect a statement of this kind to resemble journalism. Regardless, it’s heartening to see the recognition that words matter and to find in one place an account of major threats as well as what needs to be done about them. Like the Edge Question of the Year, the Bulletin’s annual announcement is more thought-provoking and valuable than most of those year-end summaries that arrive predictably every December and are predictably forgotten a few days later.