The Doomsday Clock and Human Leadership

Five Minutes to Midnight

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Armageddon who?
Armageddon out of here.

The bad news is that we’ll all be “gedden” out of here if the Doomsday Clock turns out to be accurate. The Doomsday Clock was created by a group of eminent scientists in 1947 to measure civilization’s potential for self-inflicted catastrophe. Its invention came at a time when war-weary civilization woke up to the threat of a new kind of Armageddon, a nuclear-arms race leading to a catastrophic global war.

Once a year, the board of directors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reviews current circumstances and then decides whether to move the minute hand forward or backward. The clock’s minute hand has been moved 20 times in the 67 years since its creation, edging closest to doomsday in 1984 when the nuclear-arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union escalated. Most recently, in 2012, the clock was moved two minutes closer to midnight – Armageddon. It now rests at 11:55 p.m.

The decision to advance the minute hand was based on “inadequate progress on nuclear weapons reduction and proliferation, and continuing inaction on climate change.” The number of nations scheming to acquire nuclear weapons keeps growing. The capacity of nations to control the nuclear weapons already in their possession is in doubt. Everybody’s enemies sponsor self-serving science. Threats to global civilization now include climate change, robotics, biotechnology and nanotechnology.

Humans have been rubbernecking catastrophe for a hundred centuries. Conversational rubbernecking about self-destructive alcohol and drug consumption is the main event at AA meetings. The police display car wrecks to warn about dangerous driving practices. Rubbernecking reminds us to avoid specific dangers.

We rubberneck 20th-century war because those recent events provide an especially grisly example of our dangerous deficiencies. The series of wars beginning in 1914 eventually caused the death of 100 million people. Up to a billion people suffered personal catastrophes.

One hundred years ago, in 1912, few if any wise leaders anticipated what was soon to happen. The Habsburg, Romanov and Hohenzollern families managed vast empires. China was led by a powerful emperor. There was an emperor in Japan. A Turkish sultan managed the Ottoman Empire. Persia was ruled by a shah. Elaborate bureaucracies worked for a handful of men who dominated the majority of humanity; a small number of families ruled more than a billion people.

By 1918, most of these rulers had been expelled from human leadership. Their situation changed unexpectedly, and civilization continues to change faster and faster.

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Iran who?
Iran out on humanity.

What is your perspective on the Doomsday Clock? That there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s in God’s hands, it’s been 67 years since they invented the darn thing and nothing’s happened, so why worry about it now?

Human leadership is self-leadership multiplied by 7 billion. One first step for most people would be to take this subject seriously. The Doomsday Clock is part of a narrative about us.

For dozens of centuries the aristocracy mocked and doubted the common people’s capacity to lead. Then came “We hold these truths to be self-evident … all men are created equal … they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights … among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If you believe these words, then you own responsibility for human leadership now.

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