Risk and Time in the Anthropocene

Why the Doomsday Clock is No Longer a Useful Tool for Measuring Societal Risk

Yesterday, January 26, 2016, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists adjusted their 60-year old Doomsday Clock. Outlets like the Independent and Fusion speculated as to the Bulletin’s ultimate decision: would we move closer to midnight, foretelling an acceleration on our path to the apocalypse? Or would progress made in 2015 – like the Iran deal and the Paris climate agreement – push doomsday back by a minute or two?

The Clock stayed the same: three minutes to midnight.

Why should we care? Since 1947, the Doomsday Clock has been hesitantly counting down to the End of Days, wavering between 2 and 17 minutes from midnight (the latter a level of safety achieved with the fall of the Soviet Union). Since then, the Bulletin has added synthetic viruses, transgenic crops, civilian nuclear power, and, of course, climate change to the specters threatening humanity with extinction.

One wonders how useful a clock can be that purports to measure so many different kinds of risks, some, literally, explosive (like nuclear war) and others that slowly unfold (like climate change). That is the question posed by Will Boisvert in a new piece for the Breakthrough Journal titled “Fear and Time: Risk Culture and the Broken Doomsday Clock.”

His answer? Not very useful.

Boisvert understands the obvious motivation for the Clock’s existence: “To convince ourselves to save the world,” he writes, “we must first convince ourselves the end is nigh.” But such apocalypticism is unconvincing to Boisvert, who finds more hyperbolic panic in the Clock’s ticking than productive risk assessment. Among other things, the Bulletin has overhyped the dangers of pathogenic research and zero-carbon nuclear power, while disregarding the real, systemic risks to humanity today:

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.

Perhaps the Clock was useful in frightening humanity enough to prevent a hot climax to the Cold War. Perhaps not. Regardless, its utility as a tool for understanding 21st century risks, much less addressing them, seems debatable at best. “Two minutes to midnight is an appropriate temporal metaphor for a nuclear holocaust,” writes Boisvert, “but it’s meaningless for, say, climate changes that unfold over decades and centuries.”

How then might modern civilization better weigh risks against progress? Boisvert recommends a “progress speedometer.” Similarly, the Long Now Foundation is in the process of constructing a 10,000-year clock. “If a Clock can keep going for ten millennia, shouldn’t we make sure our civilization does as well?” asks Long Now’s Kevin Kelly.

Those ideas certainly seem to offer a better framework for thinking about the opportunities and challenges that humanity faces in the 21st century than a clock perpetually stuck a few minutes before midnight. Weighing the progress and benefits that technologies bring against the new risks that they create will almost certainly remain a permanent condition of modernity and the new age that, definitions aside, we have come to call the Anthropocene. Or as Boisvert puts it, “Stewardship of the planet is an unending slog, not a race against time.”