I guess we’re all doomed
26 January 2020
TUMBY BAY - This week the Doomsday Clock moved its hands to 100 seconds to midnight.
The Doomsday Clock is a symbol that represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe.
It has been maintained since 1947 by the members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
These keepers of the clock are eminent individuals and include a dozen or so Nobel Prize winners.
The clock represents symbolically how far the world is from extinction and 100 seconds to midnight is the closest it has ever been in its 73-year history.
The decision to advance the clock by 20 seconds was based on two premises. The first is that civilisation-ending nuclear war is a possibility and the second is that forecasts about climate change devastating the planet are emerging in reality.
The scientists who keep the clock said that avoiding these potential disasters is compromised by the threat multiplier of “cyber-enabled information warfare that undercuts society's ability to respond."
People have been making dire predictions about the fate of the planet and humanity since time began. In all cases the end of the world has failed to materialise.
But now we find that forecasts about climate change may have been understated and the outcomes of a planet under stress are already with us.
So how should we regard this latest dire warning from the atomic scientists?
Should we file it alongside biblical references to the Apocalypse and Armageddon, or in the fat folder containing the multiple predictions of Nostradamus?
Or should we take it more seriously?
Most beliefs about the Apocalypse are pieced together from different texts in the Bible. In religious terms, it includes events like the Rapture, the great Tribulation and, finally, the battle of Armageddon.
Nostradamus is believed to have predicted the outbreak of World War III, which we haven’t had yet. Although some pundits, observing developments in the Middle East and the stand-off between the USA and Iran, think it could finally happen this year.
Of course such prognostications depend heavily on the qualifications, character, calibre and motivations of the people making them.
Some forecasts are presented in the gloomiest way possible to shock people into action.
Biblical predictions and those made by people like Nostradamus should be categorised in the sinister world of the magico-religious, but this doesn’t stop people bending over backwards to relate these sorts of prediction to modern historical events.
Nostradamus is supposed to have predicted the rise of Adolf Hitler and, more recently, that of Donald Trump.
(How anyone could have predicted the rise of Trump is mind boggling. His election even caught the Republican’s strongest optimists by surprise.)
In this year’s prediction, the keepers of the Doomsday Clock have been joined by former Irish president Mary Robinson, who now leads a group of former world leaders founded by Nelson Mandela and ex-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Ban Ki-moon says with concern that the world’s “mechanisms for collaboration are being undermined when we need them most".
He cites the US withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and ongoing divisions in the UN Security Council.
Mary Robinson says that “we now face a true emergency — an absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs that has eliminated any margin for error or further delay."
Eminent people and experts have got it wrong in the past. Remember the kerfuffle about the Y2K millennium bug that was supposed to crash the world’s computers at the beginning of the year 2000.
Thankfully it didn’t happen, but perhaps that was because the experts said it might which got the technocrats and fixers off their tails.
But doubts about the efficacy of predictions as well as sheer scientific ignorance are what seem to be driving the climate change deniers.
Some of our world leaders seem happy to believe in biblical prophecies but are unprepared to believe in scientific projections.
I’m betting that next year the Doomsday Clock will tick another twenty, or even more, seconds towards midnight.
Fritjof Capra is well worth reading, especially "The Tao of Physics" and The Systems View of Life"
He has also collaborated with Professor Guy Claxton and James Lovelock at the Schumacher College for ecological and spiritual studies
“We must not allow the clock and the calendar to blind us to the fact that each moment of life is a miracle and mystery.” - HG Wells
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 27 January 2020 at 09:36 AM
Paul Oates sent me two books as gifts over the Christmas period. One was his own book reflecting on his time as a kiap in Morobe including in my village. Another is a book titled Sapiens and tells of the evolution of humans.
According to Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the book Sapiens, the evolution of humans has been the biggest tragedy ever to hit the animal kingdom. We've messed up the ecology of mother earth and continue to do so.
The rate of destruction of earth was hastened when humans developed the cognitive ability and figured out a way to domesticate other animals and plants.
Harari directly links the extinction of certain animals throughout time to the activities of humans. And backs that claim up with archaeological evidence. Terrestrial animals have been the biggest losers but even their oceanic neighbours are now under threat by humans.
He has some sobering news for us. It wouldn't be long before the only animal that is left will be humans and humans. And then what?
For all our ingenuity, arrogance and pomp, we shall eat bricks and mortars and cars and ships and aeroplanes and machines to continue to live and carry on the destruction then.
Posted by: David Kitchnoge | 27 January 2020 at 08:52 AM
Like any landslide or avalanche I guess instability happens slowly at first but then very quickly. If we are in the last 100 seconds we might not have too many choices.
The biosphere is already in trouble with birds and insect collapses of over 60% and now trees are giving up and burning everywhere.
Scientists like the rest of us are always optimistic.
Posted by: Eric Coote | 26 January 2020 at 10:49 PM
The doomsday clock is non-existent scientifically according to me but its the belief system of conspiracy theorists and cultic dreamers. Prediction of world events and timing normally went wrong. Some religious fanatics who claim to have the gift of prophecy keep predicting evens that never happens. Of one such example is William Miller and Ellen White's prediction of Second coming of Christ in 1844. Christ never came and the dates were changed. Then Ellen White in her plagiarised books mentioned that instead Christ entered into holy of holies and started his judgement in 1844. This is called investigative judgement. The recent Australian Bushfire is attributed to the punishment from God because Australians never attend church services and their prime-minister is promoting gay marriages. (I heard from a Pentecostal pastor) We always find ways to blame even natural disaster are attributed to the action of God as a punishment or from the devil. President Donald Trump is now a anti Christ enforcing Sunday law in USA or even Pope Francis is the 666. Russian president is also an anti-Christ according to those religious fanatics and conspiracy theorists.
Philip - As the article says, the Doomsday Clock is a symbol, not a real object. It is there to remind us that we humans can make the world a dangerous place and that we should do all we can to make it less so. It is not a theory or a prediction or a cult - it is simply a warning - KJ
Posted by: Philip Kai Morre | 26 January 2020 at 09:36 PM
As someone who has recently tried to produce food for a number of years in a very variable environment I can tell those who sit in the city al frescoes enjoying their cafe lattes it just isn't all that easy. Farmers are dependent on the weather and rainfall and our country is getting drier by the year. You don't just turn on a tap and expect water to be there.
We can't continue to do what we always did and expect it to keep working.
The problem is that while this message is starting to get through, no one seems to have any idea of what to do since the answers of the past are being ignored by those who can't bring themselves to change their ways.
The dislocation between those at the top and those at the production level must be overcome yet who knows how to do this without the resources those at the top possess?
More population equates to the need for more resources. I don't think that axiom has really hit home to those who keep saying that we need more people to have bigger markets to sell things to and therefore make bigger profits.
We need to make better use of those resources we have at the moment.
Posted by: Paul Oates | 26 January 2020 at 07:27 PM
I think that what is new under the sun this time Paul is the scale of all the problems.
That has a lot to do with population, of course, and advanced technologies.
Humans are overwhelming the planet through their demands for food and resources and for the first time we seem to have the power to manipulate nature on a grand scale.
As Simon hints, a lot now seems to hinge on whether Trump is re-elected.
What we do if that happens is anyone's guess. We seem to have run out of places to hide.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 26 January 2020 at 05:02 PM
In retrospect it's easy to see why Trump was triumphant.
About the only people who saw it coming were people like Michael Moore because he mixed with those great unwashed, Deer Hunting with Jesus, white, Trump-voting, deplorables in the rust belt states during his documentary making.
One of the reasons they went for Trump was because of dissatisfaction with the political elite, as Chris explains below. Why they thought that Trump, a fat billionaire would help them is still a mystery.
Those fat billionaires are the real stumbling block when it comes to preventing the world self-destructing, either through nuclear mishap or our failure to deal with climate change.
Greta Thunberg has correctly targeted Trump and his ilk as the real enemy.
But how do you deal with them in our money-worshipping world?
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 26 January 2020 at 02:28 PM
Before anyone can even begin to think about solutions, its necessary to work out and agree on what the problem is.
To paraphrase Prof. Jared Diamond who reckons in his books that it's a mixture of opportunity and basic human flaws that combine to provide a natural equilibrium in human populations.
I tend to think it's far more basic than that. In school biology we learnt about the so called 'Ess Bend'. That's the graphic portrayal of any life form that expands while ever there are resources to support and encourage its growth. The classic example is the growth of bacteria in a cow pat and how when one type runs out of food and the population collapses the next type takes over. This continues until the cow pat finally disappears into the surrounding environment. That is unless there is spontaneous combustion caused by the heat of the bacterial action and the cow pat breaks faster down due to fire.
What we are seeing on a global scale is just this same type of the simple process of life on Earth.
What we are also experiencing is the frustration of knowing what is happening but that no one person or leader has the perspicacity to understand, let alone try to effectively manage a way out of the inevitable. This is due to there being a basic inability of most humans to think in an objective manner that doesn't involve a selfish need to preserve what they currently have.
So what's the answer? Well until enough people start feeling unsettled in enough nations that have any control over what they do, there is only an inevitable collapse and the whole process might start again if our species hasn't annihilated itself in the process.
There have been mass extinctions in the past but this is however the first time that sentient beings have existed and that might be able to understand what is taking place. The Four Horseman have traditionally trimmed the over population of any human society. There is no evidence to suggest that this will not happen yet again.
War, (could break out any time given certain current empty headed leaders), Famine (a large percentage already grows hungrier due to diminishing resources e.g. Eastern Africa and the locust plague), Disease (e.g. read currently the new corona-virus) and natural disasters (read climate change).
There is nothing new under the sun except a continual procession of those who won't learn from the mistakes of the past. Hitherto, no one species was able to understand what the basic lessons of life were.
Are we now about to progress or regress?
Posted by: Paul Oates | 26 January 2020 at 01:08 PM
Good piece, Phil. A couple of points that occurred: a Y2K meltdown was avoided by a lot of mitigation work beforehand. I was in IT at that time and remember the massive effort that went into identifying and fixing problems. Y2K is actually a success story and rare instance of human forethought - probably because there was money involved. Banks were particularly susceptible because of their ancient systems.
As you point out, doomsday predictions are largely the work of the spiritual and religious world, not scientific. Of course, there are exceptions - Malthus, for instance. Although his work and logic wasn't necessarily wrong, but framed by the technology of his time. The Green Revolution and the high use of fertilisers has spiked productivity, but at what cost, and for how long? Perhaps Malthus will be proved right, after all.
I think the Bulletin has the Doomsday Clock right but climate science at least is not forecasting inevitable "doom" i.e., extinction. Not yet, although there are some scientists who believe we have passed the point of no return - that our actions from here on can only slow global heating and the climate crisis, not avoid it. As our understanding of the climate sensitivity of the Earth system grows, and our models improve, it seems our original estimates are at best optimistic, and there is growing evidence they have under-estimated the amount and rate of change. All the more reason to fight for urgent action.
A couple of days ago, feeling bruised and sorry for myself, I decided to quit my activism. The vast majority of people don't listen, don't read, don't seem to care. What can one person do against such vast apathy? Reflecting, I've decided to keep going, at least until the outcome of the US presidential election. If Trump gets back in, I do believe we are screwed, short of a revolution that turfs him out. I hate the label "leader of the free world" but the US wields large influence over the west, particularly puppet states like Australia. If Trump's corrupt pro-fossil fuel policies continue and expand, we will not be able to stop runaway climate change, or the sixth mass extinction. It may already be too late, but every point of every degree makes a difference.
Posted by: Simon Jackson | 26 January 2020 at 12:41 PM
I have been expressing concern about the general state of the world for some time, probably becoming something of a cracked record in the process.
That said, it is sort of encouraging that the world's scientists seem to have now caught on to the fact that something is seriously amiss with how we collectively are choosing to live our lives and govern ourselves.
We are, to put it bluntly, making a serious mess of ourselves and the planet. We seem to have no collective insight into the dangers to which we will expose ourselves and, much more distressingly, our children and grand children.
I am especially alarmed by the apparent political impotence of those who, like me, think that the current dominant neo-liberal economic model lies at the heart of the problem.
The so-called progressives have utterly failed to either develop or articulate a sensible, reasonably coherent critique of neo-liberalism let alone a plausible alternative.
The left (loosely defined) tend to rabbit on about a grab bag of largely unrelated issues ranging from LGBTI rights through to bat shit crazy anarchist ideas that bear no relation to reality at all.
They are then bewildered and enraged when the non-woke masses reject them at the ballot box in favour of the superficially plausible but erroneous blandishments of conservative or right wing politicians like Donald Trump or Recep Erdogan or Boris Johnson or even Scott Morrison.
Those who believe that neo-liberal capitalism represents ultimate perfection and must lead us all to some utopian future are seriously and dangerously deluded.
The evidence of its flaws and contradictions is mounting by the day yet, as they say, there are none so blind as will not see.
To some at least, authoritarian capitalism as practiced by China looks like a plausible alternative but it too will falter or fail in due course.
For the record, I am not a socialist, let alone a communist. My views have been formed by a fairly cold blooded assessment of the evidence before me, not as a consequence of viewing the world through a particular ideological lens.
History tells those who pay attention that the incredibly efficient but wasteful and destructive version of capitalism that is now ascendant will eventually extract a huge toll in social, economic and environmental terms.
It is a runaway train, no longer under the control of the authorities, who now freely admit that they do not understand what is going on and certainly seem unable or unwilling to do anything to ameliorate its worst effects.
Mega-corporations like Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Amazon, BHP Billiton and so forth are now vastly wealthier and more influential than most of the world's nation states.
They are new versions of the British East India Company and its Dutch, German and French equivalents of the European Imperial era and arguably more powerful.
Even the president of the United States was reduced to a mere also-ran at the recent Davos summit, where the new great lords of the land held court to discuss the state of the world over which they exercise such a powerful influence.
This is not mere hyperbole on my part: it is very, very real and deeply alarming that we have a tiny billionaire class that effectively controls at least half of the entire world's wealth.
Not even during the medieval era was there such a gross disparity in wealth between the aristocracy and peasantry.
Karl Marx was largely right in his analysis of the deep flaws in the laissez faire capitalism of the 19th century, but almost entirely wrong in his prescriptions for change. Communism was a disaster of the first magnitude and must never be repeated.
That said, we collectively need to find a new version of capitalism that ameliorates if not eradicates its worst effects, especially the grotesque maldistribution of wealth and incredible amount of wasteful consumption it needs to flourish.
If we cannot do this, then the Doomsday clock will, as Phil rightly says, move relentlessly towards midnight and we will collectively be obliged to endure the terrible consequences of our folly in persisting with a fatally flawed neo-liberal economic system.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 26 January 2020 at 11:02 AM
Re "How anyone could have predicted the rise of Trump is mind boggling". Well, to quote The Independent, Michael Moore did:
"Michael Moore demonstrated foresight few other Democrats did when he delivered a thundering speech about why the party would ultimately lose before the US general election.
"The documentary filmmaker experienced something of a renaissance when he emerged as a leading commentator and critic of the Republican nominee. Then he moved his commentary from criticism to prophetic warnings, forecasting what would be the biggest “f**k you” to the political elite that American history has seen in recent memory: a Trump victory.
"Not only did he anticipate Mr Trump’s ascendancy to the White House, he also correctly predicted the four “Brexit” traditionally Democratic states which would vote for him: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin."
Posted by: Peter Salmon | 26 January 2020 at 07:28 AM