Fear and Time

Risk Culture and the Broken Doomsday Clock

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Fall 2015 | Will Boisvert,

Things are getting bad — really bad — according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. This past January, the journal reset the Doomsday Clock, its symbol of the imminence of global catastrophe, to a heart-stopping three minutes to midnight1 — closer than the seven minutes-to-midnight setting during the Cuban Missile Crisis2. The specter this time isn’t World War III, the Clock’s longtime focus — disarmament treaties have slashed the numbers of nuclear warheads to a fraction of their Cold War peak — but a raft of terrifying new threats that, in the Bulletin’s estimation, more than make up for the receding menace of nuclear holocaust.

Germs and genes are among the scariest of the Bulletin’s new horsemen of the apocalypse. “Engineered pathogens with high transmissibility, latency, and lethality might be capable of causing human extinction,” warns one article.3 Another fingers an avian flu strain, mutated by researchers to be highly transmissible, as a potential “doomsday virus.”4 Other authors contend “transgenic plants could be malevolently engineered to produce large quantities of bioregulators or toxic proteins.”5

Last year’s Ebola epidemic inspired hair-raising forecasts: one writer called it a “slow-motion atomic bomb” that is “giving terrorists a virtually unlimited supply of Ebola virus,”6 while another forecasted 1.4 million Ebola deaths by, well, now.7 Other catastrophes-in-waiting fill the magazine’s pages: melting ice-caps; giant asteroids;8 insidious nanotechnology;9 hackers crashing the grid;10 paramilitary robots with a license to kill11 — all pondered in sober, technocratic detail by its academic contributors. The Bulletin has even held Doomsday Clock Symposiums to explore new disasters.12

This is fearsome stuff — and it’s meant to be. The Clock’s exact setting may not reflect anything more objective than the mood of the eminent scientific advisory board that sets it, but its larger purpose is clear: to spotlight existential menaces and spark a sense of urgency into panic about them. The Doomsday Clock put apocalyptic prophecy at the core of the postwar ban-the-bomb campaign. Nowadays, enshrined as the “precautionary principle” that policy should be guided by worst-case scenarios, doomsday conjectures are the centerpiece of green ideology. They remain essential to the politics of reform, suggests Kennette Benedict, who stepped down as the Bulletin’s publisher in February.13 “If the complacency about global threats … continues,” she writes, “our chances of surviving diminish.”14 To convince ourselves to save the world, we must first convince ourselves that the end is nigh.

But there are problems with apocalyptic dread as a framework for dealing with the issues the Bulletin has taken up. The doomsday metaphor fits nuclear war, suggesting a simple, stark, overwhelming peril that merits moral revulsion and abolition. But climate change and other issues of sustainability and development pose complex, ambiguous risks, for which a simple eliminationist program may be neither feasible nor desirable. Apocalypticism can systematically distort our understanding of risk, mesmerizing us with sensational scenarios that distract us from mundane risks that are objectively larger. Worse, it can block rather than galvanize efforts to solve global problems. By treating risks as infinite, doom-saying makes it harder to take their measure — to prioritize them, balance them against benefits, or countenance smaller ones to mitigate larger ones. The result can be paralysis, as initiatives get tangled in conflicting anxieties that yield incoherent policies — a muddle that’s amply reflected in the Bulletin’s pages. The Doomsday Clock demands that we avoid every risk at any cost. But addressing global crises will require us to do something very different: to embrace the risks that are most worth taking.

1.

The Doomsday Clock debuted on the cover in 1947 when the Bulletin, founded two years earlier by scientists involved in the Manhattan Project to publicize their misgivings about atomic weapons, made the leap from newsletter to magazine. Invented by artist Martyl Langsdorf15, the Clock was a masterpiece of iconography, brilliantly conjuring a sense of immediate peril, the drama of a countdown to an explosion, and the primal anxiety we feel over looming deadlines.

But what began as an evocation of the dangers of one technology now signifies a generic fear of all technology. The Bulletin calls the Doomsday Clock “an internationally recognized design that conveys how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making.” Among those dangerous technologies it includes “climate-changing technologies, emerging biotechnologies, and cybertechnology that could inflict irrevocable harm,” along with “geoengineering to combat climate change … [which] may lead to unintended consequences with devastating effects.”16 Instead of relentlessly organized nuclear launch protocols, it’s technological anarchy — the “lone-wolf scientist developing a doomsday bug in his or her garage” in the words of columnist Laura Kahn17 — that now haunts the Bulletin’s imagination.

The magazine’s apocalyptic concerns are thus so broad that it’s hard to think of a technology that would not inflame them. Metallurgy, internal combustion engines, airplanes — they have all inflicted devastating, irrevocable harm on humanity, in settings from world war to traffic accidents, which kill a million people each year. But while all technology has destructive potential, the net effect of technological development has been to make life vastly safer and healthier. Using exaggerated doomsday speculations as an excuse to impede technological progress can therefore be both perverse and counterproductive.

The Bulletin’s obsession with germ warfare agents and bio-apocalypse is a case in point. Weaponized pathogens are very difficult to gin up: hard to make, hard to spread, and easy to thwart with public health measures. That’s why no country — certainly no lone wolf — has deployed an effective germ warfare agent. Moreover, it’s implausible that genetic engineers will invent something worse than the diseases we already know. Deadly pathogens are subtle balancing acts — high virulence, for example, usually undermines transmissibility by knocking victims off their feet — that scientists don’t know how to reverse-engineer and that have already been exploited by nature’s cunning. Indeed, the Bulletin’s preoccupation with bio-apocalypse seems prompted less by a realistic appraisal of danger than by the huge public mindshare claimed by all the zombie plagues in Hollywood thrillers.

Unfortunately, alarm over such very remote risks is starting to cramp major scientific initiatives. One such effort is “gain-of-function” research that seeks to engineer viruses in ways that could enhance their pathogenicity. The field exploded in controversy in the pages of the Bulletin and elsewhere in 2012, when two laboratories managed to alter the virulent H5N1 avian flu strain to make it transmissible through air between ferrets, the best animal model of human flu.18 Critics warned that terrorists might duplicate the studies to breed a doomsday bug with avian flu’s high mortality — the World Health Organization pegs it at 55 percent so far,19 though some studies put it much lower20 — and a novel ability to spread easily between humans. Publication constraints on such studies have been proposed, and last October the White House imposed a moratorium on government funding, bringing a number of projects to a halt.21 But while gain-of-function research may sound like classic mad-scientist mischief, researchers are pursuing it because it could play an important role in heading off the very pandemics that its opponents dread. Like all previous plagues, a more contagious avian flu will likely be engineered by natural selection, not bioterrorists. By giving scientists insight into genetic changes that alter a virus’s characteristics, gain-of-function studies could help flu surveillance programs spot a dangerous new H5N1 strain and develop a vaccine before a pandemic gets started.22

That’s just one example of how apocalypticism, with its focus on exotic scenarios of technological villainy, diverts attention from risks that really matter. While the Bulletin fretted over Ebola terrorism, the everyday scourges of tuberculosis, AIDS, malaria, and infant diarrhea were killing hundreds of times as many people. Doomsday theorizing gets infectious disease threats backwards: it’s not the genetically modified bugs hatching from high-tech labs that should worry us, but old-fashioned germs that thrive in poverty, underdevelopment, and failed states. The current efflorescence of biotechnology and genetic engineering holds great promise for addressing those real crises, and others. Emphasizing far-fetched bio-catastrophes only stokes public anxiety and misguided initiatives that slow progress, like anti-vaccine movements and bans on genetically modified foods.

Perhaps the widest disconnect between the Bulletin’s doomsdayism and real risk arises from its animus against nuclear energy. The magazine has always viewed nuclear reactors suspiciously because of their associations with nuclear bombs, and the Fukushima accident intensified those anxieties. Since 2011, calls for drastic overhauls of nuclear safety regimes and reactor designs have appeared prominently in the journal’s doomsday editorials,23 and articles prescribing a “nuclear exit” have mushroomed,24 often sounding an apocalyptic note. Yale sociologist Charles Perrow, a frequent contributor, approvingly quoted doomsday speculations that radiation from the Fukushima plant’s spent fuel pools could “‘destroy the world environment and our civilization,’”25 and further suggested that nuclear reactors might “have such huge catastrophic potential that they should not be allowed to exist.”26 The Bulletin is the leading forum for respectable antinuclear commentary (alongside occasional pro-nuclear pieces), and such pronouncements influence the media, policy makers, and public opinion: Who knows better than the “atomic scientists?”

But actual science shows that the journal’s atomic nightmares grossly overstate the risk. The scientific consensus on the Fukushima accident, for example, is that its public health consequences will be modest to nil.27 And given its usefulness in decarbonizing the energy supply, a cogent case can be made that the nuclear enterprise is safe enough that the focus should shift to reducing costs and speeding construction of new plants. Many environmentalists have made that case, like climatologist James Hansen, who coauthored a study that found that nuclear plants have saved nearly two million lives by abating pollution from coal-fired power plants. Hansen used to be a member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board.29 (Memo to Hansen: please have a talk with your old colleagues about comparative risk.)

2.

Balanced perspective eludes the Bulletin’s Clock-watchers. In a 2014 column entitled “The Myth of Absolute Safety,” Kennette Benedict strikes a moderate tone, urging governments to “invite communities into decisions about nuclear power … [and] hold public forums on where to site new power plants or store nuclear waste, and on choosing the right energy mix for homes and businesses.” Unfortunately, she prefaces that reasonable-sounding call for dialogue with an apocalyptic trumpet-blast declaring nuclear power to be “the most dangerous [technology] on earth, capable of destroying whole communities and contaminating air, earth, and water with materials that will last for thousands of years.”30 Benedict thus counters a (nonexistent) myth of absolute nuclear safety with a premise of absolute nuclear peril that’s not only false — cigarette technology kills thousands of times as many people as nuclear power — but guaranteed to shut down the conversation before it starts.

The inability to get perspective on risk, which yields confusion about policy, is the worst result of the apocalyptic impulse. The Doomsday Clock reduces risk to a single simplistic dimension of danger; that’s what makes it such a brilliantly compelling meme. But the technologies it spotlights form multidimensional landscapes of risk and benefit that cannot be intelligibly parsed in such a way. Some of the best ways to address climate change — that other apocalypse — involve those technologies, thus posing knotty quandaries. Geoengineering seems like just the sort of scary monkeying with the climate that got us into this jam, but it could be crucial for mitigating climate change. The Bulletin’s writings on the topic emphasize the edgier schemes, like sulfate aerosols, instead of less-problematic carbon-sequestration measures, like fertilizing the ocean with iron.31 How do we balance those risks? Or balance the risk of global warming against the risk of nuclear energy that could help avert it? Or the risk of bio-engineering techniques that could help us adapt to the agricultural disruptions and disease threats flowing from it? How, for that matter, do we balance the apocalyptic risks of global warming against the apocalyptic benefits of global warming? For all we know, our carbon emissions may have averted the next Ice Age; how do we decide between a cold, dry doomsday and a warm, wet doomsday?32 Doomsday theorizing cannot answer those questions because it’s impossible to make rational comparisons between different flavors of allegedly infinite harm. It can only divert our attention from the hard evidence of real-world risks onto imponderable what-ifs that distort our judgments instead of clarifying them.

3.

At a deeper level, the Clock profoundly misconstrues the nature of our crises and our technology. Short of a rogue asteroid, there will likely be no doomsday. (And if we encounter one, rocket technology originally developed for intercontinental ballistic missiles will be indispensable for dealing with it.) Two minutes to midnight is an appropriate temporal metaphor for a nuclear holocaust, but it’s meaningless for, say, climate changes that unfold over decades and centuries. Global warming may be cataclysmic, but it will not be apocalyptic: there will not be a dawn when there is nothing left to do but sift through the ashes. A century from now we will still face the problem of balancing our need for development and material abundance against threats to the environmental quality and diversity that we also increasingly value. Stewardship of the planet is an unending slog, not a race against time.

Nor does the Clock’s vision of humanity helpless before a technological juggernaut make much sense outside its original and very idiosyncratic context of atomic warheads kept on hair-trigger alert according to a strategy of ineluctable retaliation. Nuclear weapons are designed to wreak inescapable havoc. Other technologies aren’t like that; they are designed to be safe and pliable. And, overwhelmingly, they are. History shows that technological advances, including the ones the Bulletin dreads, give humanity more control over its fate and make civilization more resistant to disaster.

All of this makes the Doomsday Clock an unsuitable symbol for the steady, protracted, complicated tasks of remediation and development that the world must undertake. That effort will require us to deploy every technical means we can muster and to make choices about them at every turn—not between salvation and doom, but between better and worse. Making those choices well requires shrewd, multifaceted judgments of risk informed by science and experience, and a willingness to make forthright trade-offs that accept small risks to make progress against larger ones.

The Clock is an obstacle to that progress. It symbolizes a world paralyzed on the brink of catastrophe, in which every ticking moment drags us closer to the abyss. Salvation, it suggests, lies in turning back the clock by impeding the technologies that we imagine will pose such dire threats to our existence. In the end, it’s a reactionary image, a pretext for a panicky, ideologically-driven rejection of critical approaches to solving problems — and a formula for inaction rather than mobilization. If we think that the way forward requires us to thread a path through a minefield of apocalyptic dangers, our impulse will be to never cross over at all.

Perhaps we should replace the Clock with something else, like a “progress speedometer.” Compared with the immediacy a doomsday clock, that’s a pretty lame icon, but at least it communicates the notion that we should gauge our well-being by what we accomplish rather than what we avoid. It might prod us to go fast, and then faster — to deploy clean energy, biotechnology, and all the other resources at our disposal as rapidly as we can to address the needs that confront us right now. 

REFERENCES

1. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “2015: It Is 3 Minutes to Midnight,” http://thebulletin.org/clock/2015.

2. Bulletin Staff, “Remembering the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, available at http://thebulletin.org/remembering-cuban-missile-crisis.

3. Anders Sandberg, Jason G. Matheny, and Milan M. Ćirković, “How can we reduce the risk of human extinction?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Sept 9 2008, http://thebulletin.org/how-can-we-reduce-risk-human-extinction.

4. Laura Kahn, “Going Viral,” Jan 17 2012, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists http://thebulletin.org/going-viral.

5. Eileen R. Choffnes, Stanley M. Lemon, and David A. Relman, “A brave new world in the life sciences,” Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, September/October 2006.

6. Devabhaktuni Srikrishna and Ranu S. Dhillon, “Eboloa: a slow-motion atomic bomb,” Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences,” November 25, 2014, http://thebulletin.org/ebola-slow-motion-atomic-bomb7825.

7. Hugh Gusterson, “ISIS vs. Ebola,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 23, 2014, http://thebulletin.org/isis-vs-ebola7753.

8.  John L. Remo and Hans J. Haubold, “Threats from space: 20 years of progress” Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, July/August 2014, http://bos.sagepub.com/content/70/4/85.full.pdf+html

9.  Margaret E. Kosal, “Is small scary?” Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, September 2004, http://bos.sagepub.com/content/60/5/38.full

10. Fred Guterl, “Armageddon 2.0,” Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, November 2012, http://thebulletin.org/armageddon-20

11. Mark Gubrud, “Stopping killer robots,” Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, January 2014, http://thebulletin.org/2014/january/stopping-killer-robots

12. http://thebulletin.org/multimedia/2013-doomsday-clock-symposium 

13.  http://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clockwork8052

14. Kennette Benedict, “Existential threats, fast and slow,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 18, 2013, http://thebulletin.org/existential-threats-fast-and-slow.

15. Kennette Benedict, “Doomsday clockwork,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 3, 2015, http://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clockwork8052.

16. “Doomsday Clock: Overview,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists http://thebulletin.org/overview.

17. Laura Kahn, “DIY biology,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 18, 2012 http://thebulletin.org/diy-biology

18. The controversial gain of function studies were by Masaki Imai, et al., “Experimental adaptation of an influenza H5 HA confers respiratory droplet transmission to a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus in ferrets,” Nature 486, no. 7403, (2012), http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v486/n7403/full/nature10831.html; Sander Herfst, et al., “Airborne Transmission of Influenza A/H5N1 Virus Between Ferrets,” Science 22, no. 6088 (2012), http://www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6088/1534.full.

19. World Health Organization, “Cumulative number of confirmed human causes for avian influenza A (H5N1), reported to WHO, 2003-2015, http://www.who.int/influenza/human_animal_interface/EN_GIP_20150303cumulativeNumberH5N1cases.pdf?ua=1.

20. Jesse Emspak, “Bird Flu More Prevalent, Less Deadly Than Expected,” LiveScience, February 23, 2012, http://www.livescience.com/18630-h5n1-bird-flu-prevalence-mortality-rate.html.

21. Sara Reardon, “Viral-research moratorium called too broad,” Nature News, October 23, 2014, http://www.nature.com/news/viral-research-moratorium-called-too-broad-1.16211.

22. Peter Palese, “Don’t censor life-saving science,” Nature News, January 11, 2012, http://www.nature.com/news/don-t-censor-life-saving-science-1.9777.

25. Charles Perrow, “Five assessments of the Fukushima disaster,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 11, 2014, http://thebulletin.org/five-assessments-fukushima-disaster.

26. Charles Perrow, “Fukushima and the inevitability of accidents,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, December 1, 2011, http://thebulletin.org/fukushima-and-inevitability-accidents.

27. Will Boisvert, “Five Surprising Public Health Facts About Fukushima, “ The Breakthrough, March 12, 2015, http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/issues/nuclear/five-surprising-public-health-facts-about-fukushima.

28. Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen, “Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power,” Environmental Science & Technology 47, no. 9 (2013), http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es3051197.

29. http://thebulletin.org/nuclear-vs-renewables-divided-they-fall

30. Kennette Benedict, “The myth of absolute safety,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 26, 2014, http://thebulletin.org/myth-absolute-safety7007

31. Alan Robock, “20 Reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 30, 2013, http://thebulletin.org/2008/may/20-reasons-why-geoengineering-may-be-bad-idea.

32. Richard Black, “Carbon emissions ‘will defer Ice Age,’” BBC News, January 9, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-16439807.


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