Sunday, January 5, 2020

Confronting Doomsday

Max Ernst: "Two Children Threatened by a Nightingale" (1924)

While most of us watched transfixed when the Times Square Ball dropped as the clock struck midnight – like the misanthrope watching a  horror movie – I couldn’t take my eyes off another timepiece:

This clock, the Doomsday Clock, rather than heralding in the new year, represents how long humanity will survive as depicted by the 12 hours on a clock face. Midnight represents the end of civilization or the apocalypse.

For 2019, it is set at 11:58 pm, two  minutes from  midnight.”⁠1 

 The Doomsday Clock, the brainchild of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, has been accepted as a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe since 1947.  Although The Clock evaluates all risks, including climate change, and emerging technologies, this year it is focused on nuclear dangers.

The Bulletin points out reckless language in the nuclear realm has heated up an already dangerous situation. It is clear we are on the cusp of a  new arms race, increasing  the likelihood of accidents and misperceptions, while, at the same time,  robbing resources from life-affirming objectives – like fixing our infrastructure, raising the minimum wage, and getting everyone health insurance.

The last time the clock was set this close to doomsday was in 1953, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested their first thermonuclear weapons. I was 8-years-old, practicing duck-and-cover under my desk in Northwood Grammar School. A nuclear attack seems so imminent, I pleaded with my father to build us a bomb shelter.

Oh, how times have changed. 

Today, we appear unfazed by the threat of nuclear war, held in thrall as we are, by social media and shopping on Amazon. Worst of all, as opposed to when I was eight, now new existential dangers lurk.

The Atomic Bulletin warns us about one thing, evident to us all, that the world has entered a prolonged period of extreme instability: A situation where the caustic political environment, coupled with an acceleration of disinformation and cyber-warfare, puts civilization on an unsustainable path. 

And that’s not to mention climate change, that 800-pound gorilla just now slouching out of the shadows into plain view. Paul Krugman puts it this way:

“While it will take generations for the full consequences of climate change to play out, there will be many localized, temporary disasters along the way. Apocalypse will become the new normal” — like what is happening right now in Australia.⁠2


Somehow, I survived grammar school without getting ulcers and our world didn’t disappear in a mushroom cloud. I realize that things were simpler in the 1950s, but what happened then provides a blueprint for a way forward today.

 I don’t believe that it was just dumb luck that we avoided nuclear war back then: Rather it was because regular people got fed up and demanded change.

 At the height of the ‘Cold War,’ about 50,000 women brought together by “Women Strike for Peace,” marched in 60 cities to demonstrate against nuclear weapons. A robust movement to save the environment arose, spurred by Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, These causes merged with burgeoning, feminist, civil rights, and anti-war  movements to form the 1960s counterculture.  

I believe that when we were young, our Sixties generation, standing up together for a cause bigger than ourselves –or our pocketbooks – changed history, at least for a while, striking a blow for peaceful co-existence, universal human rights, and protecting our precious little, spaceship  Earth.

It is time to do it again. 

And, once again, it will be the young who will inspire us and lead the way. Young people, like 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, speaking truth to power at the 2018 Climate Action Summit:

“People are suffering. People ae dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”⁠3

Go, girl, go!

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