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What Makes the Doomsday Clock Tick?

What Makes the Doomsday Clock Tick?

2020 truly felt like the end.  The impending end of humanity, the apocalypse, or “doomsday,” if you will.  With the quarantine going into effect last March, and the newfound battle with COVID-19, natural disasters running rampant across the country, and a (now former) U.S. president who wasn’t doing anything to alleviate the struggles but instead spreading false information about the deadly virus- 2020 felt like the end of times.  It wasn’t a 2012 Mayan calendar fear this time, but something far bigger and something based in fact.  The world seemed to be crumbling before us, and according to the Doomsday Clock run by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, we’re closer to “the end” than we have ever been before.  We’re 100 seconds to midnight. 

Well, what does that even mean? A Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists- it almost sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel.  If the name “Doomsday Clock” sounds familiar (and if you’re a comic book nerd) you may have read the Watchmen and DC Comic book series by the same name.  The Doomsday Clock isn’t a new religious zealot cult or some sort of prediction machine, but rather, a self described metaphor for how close humanity is to ending life as we know it.  But how can a metaphor tell us anything? 

The version of the Doomsday Clock used in the DC comic Watchmen / Wikimedia

“The doomsday clock is not a calculator.  It is not something that we enter a bunch of equations into,” said editor in chief of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists bimonthly magazine, John Mecklin.  “The doomsday clock is a metaphor for the security state of the world, how dangerous things are in comparison to where things were generally last year at this time, in comparison with history back to the end of world war II.”

Let’s start from the beginning.  The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists are the creators of the Doomsday clock, which is described on their website as, “a design that warns the public about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making. It is a metaphor, a reminder of the perils we must address if we are to survive on the planet.”  

The Bulletin started out as a small group of scientists and researchers who took part in the Manhattan Project.  People included in this group were biophysicist Eugene Rabinowitch, Hyman Goldsmith, Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein, who is credited as “a founding co-chair of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors,” according to the Bulletin’s website.  

Albert Einstein, leading member of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists/ Wikimedia

The clock was created in 1947, when the greatest danger to humanity was believed to be the recently invented and potentially cataclysmic use of nuclear weapons.  When it was first created, the clock, designed by Martyl Langsdorf, was set to 7 minutes to midnight.  Throughout the years, more and more groups of scientists from the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin have come together once a year to decide how far the hand of the clock should move.  

What started as a warning against the dangers of atomic weaponry turned into a warning against other dangerous aspects of life.  Climate change, disruptive technologies,  and nuclear warfare are all part of what makes the doomsday clock tick.  

“[The misuse of disruptive technologies] could cause huge harm to civilization, maybe not erase the human species but make the world a terrible, terrible place to live,” said Mecklin.  

The Science and Security Board attached to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gather every year to discuss the current state of the world, a meeting which Mecklin describes as “the smartest people in the world very seriously discussing what we should tell the world about what needs to be done to keep humanity from ending itself.” 

But do people take the clock seriously?  Or more specifically, do people who actively prepare for the end of the world care about the doomsday clock?  People that prepare for an impending apocalypse are known as “doomsday preppers.”  These so-called “preppers” had a lot to say about the end of the world, and whether or not they take the clock seriously.  

The doomsday preppers of Facebook have formed numerous groups to talk about and collectively gather information about the end of the world.  For some, preparing for the end of the world includes escaping modern life.

“Well let’s just say I’m about to head for the deep BC (British Columbia) forest to never be seen again, so that’ll tell you how close we are,”  said Marcel Dagenais, a doomsday prepper part of the Doomsday Preppers facebook group. He, similar to other preppers, believes in the spiritual side of the end of the world. As for the doomsday clock?  He calls the Bulletin “crooks” who “don’t even know how close the mess is.”  

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Jorge Vazquez also doesn’t believe in the doomsday clock, but does believe in the end of the world.  In his opinion, the doomsday clock is, “for people programmed to react to politics and politicians.  I did some math long ago on economics and found the whole system was going to collapse.  90% of the population depend on the system to survive, ergo, they will die.  That is why I built the place in the jungle of South America.” 

While doomsday preppers themselves don’t tend to believe in the Doomsday clock, John Mecklin explains exactly why people should be taking it very seriously, “when the announcement was made in January, thousands of news organizations wrote about it.  Depending on who’s numbers you want to believe, that announcement is seen or attended to in some way by tens of millions of people in the weeks after it’s made.  I don’t think tens of millions of people are attending to something that they don’t take seriously.”  

 It’s clear that the doomsday clock needs to be (and is) taken seriously by everyone, especially leaders.

“People at high levels of government around the world pay attention to what the Bulletin says. I know that for a fact,” said Mecklin.  “The assembled media of the world take it seriously, and the people who watch that or pay attention to that take it seriously.  The real question is how seriously are the world leaders trying to do something about it.”

2020 marked the clock, and humanity’s, nearest proximity to midnight in the history of the clock. 

Lucky for us, 2020 wasn’t the end.  100 seconds is a minute and 40 seconds after all, and unlike an ordinary clock, we can turn back time on the doomsday clock. The hand has moved back and forth for years, depending on the state of the world.  What makes the clock terrifying is the fact that it’s not about an imagined zombie apocalypse or a random meteor plummeting to Earth.  It reflects choices and actions within our control- it tells us how close we are to ending life on this planet as we know it simply by the things humanity has done.  What we have to remember is that the clock isn’t here to scare us but to help us change. If we, especially our world leaders, are capable of change, we can turn back the clock.

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