In less than 24hrs, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ will update the Doomsday Clock. It’s currently at 100 seconds from midnight – the metaphorical time when the human race could destroy the world with technologies of its own making.
Never has the clock been so close to midnight. It has little chance of retracing its steps on the 75th anniversary.
The clock was originally designed to draw attention towards nuclear conflagration. However, scientists discovered that the clock was actually a way to draw attention to nuclear conflagration. The Bulletin was founded in 1945 were less focused on the initial use of “the bomb” than on the irrationality of Stockpiling weaponsNuclear hegemony is our goal.
They realized that more bombs would not increase the odds of winning a war, or make people safer, when one bomb would suffice. New York is destroyed.
Although nuclear annihilation is still the most likely and severe existential threat to humanity it is only one of the possible catastrophes that the Doomsday Clock can measure. The Bulletin says:
The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and disruptive technologies in other domains.
Multiple threats connected
I feel a certain academic kinship with clockmakers on a personal level. I have mentors who are particularly supportive. Aaron NovickThe founders of the Bulletin were influenced by others, including, who profoundly influenced my view of scientific discipline and how I approach science.
In 2022, their warning extends beyond weapons of mass destruction to include other technologies that concentrate potentially existential hazards – including climate change and its root causes in over-consumption and extreme affluence.
Scientists warn that global wealth is destroying the planet.
Many of these threats are already well-known. For example, Commercial chemical useis all-pervasive as is the Toxic wasteIt creates. There are tens of thousands of large scale waste sites in the US alone, with 1,700 hazardous “Superfund sites” prioritised for clean-up.
As Hurricane HarveyThese sites were extremely vulnerable when the hurricane hit Houston in 2017. Two million kilograms of airborne pollutants were released at levels above regulatory limits. 14 toxic waste sites suffered damage or were flooded and dioxins found in major rivers at levels well beyond regulatory limits. 200 times higherBelow the recommended maximum concentrations
It was only one of many major metropolitan areas. Climate change is causing increasing storm severity. Toxic waste sites pose a risk grow.
The Bulletin is also increasingly focused on the rise of artificial intelligence. Autonomous weaponry, and biological and mechanical robotics.
The movie clichés of cyborgs and “killer robots” tend to disguise the true risks. For example, gene drivesThese are early examples of biological robotics that are already in development. Genome editingGene drive systems are created using tools that allow for the spread of genes through normal reproduction, but are specifically designed to destroy offspring or other genes of a specific sex.
Climate change and affluence
Climate change is a serious threat that can be viewed as an existential threat.
Similarly, it’s possible to imagine the effects of climate change causing concentrated chemical waste to escape confinement. During storms, highly dispersed toxic substances can be concentrated and picked up by floodwaters and then distributed into rivers or estuaries.
The result could be the despoiling of agricultural land and fresh water sources, displacing populations and creating “chemical refugees”.
Resetting the clock
The Doomsday Clock has been ticking for 75+ years. There are many other factors. Scientists issue environmental warnings in that time, what of humanity’s ability to imagine and strive for a different future?
Science plays a part in this problem. It helps us understand the risks and it also drives the technological progress. And scientists are people, too – part of the same cultural and political processes that influence everyone.
J. Robert Oppenheimer – the “father of the atomic bomb” – DescriptionThis vulnerability of scientists to manipulation and to their own ambition, greed, and naivete in 1947:
The physicists know sin in a crude sense that no vulgarity, no humor, or overstatement can extinguish. This knowledge is something they cannot lose.
If the bomb was the way physicists discovered sin, then maybe those other existential threats, which are the result of our addictions to technology and consumption, are how others learn it.
These threats are interrelated, which is what the Doomsday Clock serves to remind us.