In 1947, following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the Second World War, a new symbol emerged into our public consciousness, representing our closeness to ultimate destruction as a civilization. The “Doomsday Clock”, as it was called, was presented by members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, with a minute hand counting down closer to midnight with the increase of existential threats faced by humanity.
Initially set for seven minutes to midnight, the clock is currently two and a half symbolic minutes from destruction. The closest it ever came to the witching hour had been in 1953, following hydrogen bomb tests conducted by the U.S. and the Soviets; at that time, the minute hand was just two minutes from midnight.
Back in April, Noam Chomsky addressed a crowd at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he discussed the Doomsday Clock, and humankind’s present closeness to ultimate oblivion.
It is “a near miracle that we’ve escaped [nuclear disaster] thus far,” Chomsky told those in attendance. Even in the days since Chomsky’s lecture, heightened concerns about North Korean missile tests have prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to proclaim he hasn’t ruled out military action against the country. This, following on the heels of a brief military operation against Syria by the U.S. issued in response to a presumed chemical attack by the regime of Bashar al Assad on the Syrian people, which many (including Chomsky) argue could foreshadow worsening relations between the U.S. and Syria’s allies in Russia.
However, in addition to the nuclear threat, humanity faces other notable perils. At his lecture in Massachusetts, Chomsky also highlighted climate change among the most persistent and ready threats to humanity in modern times. Though scientifically unquestionable, climate change and human activity that contributes to it remains among the most controversial subjects present today, with political attitudes varying greatly about it. “We may be passing a point of no return”, Chomsky told the Amherst crowd as he addressed climate change. “The U.S. is virtually alone in racing towards destruction,” he said, “and doing so enthusiastically.”
Whether or not humankind is indeed on the brink of destruction is something that will be left for history to decide, though in truth, humankind has gone through an awful lot. During the time civilization has arisen and evolved here on Earth, plagues, cataclysms, wars, and a host of other perilous things have, with little doubt, set back our progress throughout the ages. And yet, we have managed to endure, despite such things, though perhaps not as swiftly as we might have.
Of course, it is with hope for the avoidance of similar setbacks–natural and manmade–in the future that we have speakers like Noam Chomsky coming forward to address the potential for “doomsday”, as it were. While some natural threats, the likes of asteroid or comet impacts cannot be prevented, per se, technology might help us to offset or otherwise neutralize their effects. Conversely, part of Chomsky’s argument in relation to how technological growth plays into the problems we face today presents us with a unique paradox: the industrialization and technological growth that helped move humanity forward, and which may protect us against future natural threats, has also been very damaging over time. Among the greatest factors in relation to anthropogenic factors (i.e. those caused by humans) in relation to climate change are the use of fossil fuels and their related technologies, which spurred industrial revolutions, and all the while had serious impacts on the environment as humans progressed.
Noam Chomsky isn’t the only one voicing serious concerns about the future of humanity, of course. In 2010, microbiologist Frank Fenner said that he believed humans could become extinct within the next century. Similar sentiments were echoed by Canadian biologist Neil Dawe, and more famously by the likes of chemist Bill Nye (yes, the same one with the annoying new show on Netflix), and Neil DeGrass Tyson.
Physicist Stephen Hawking has been particularly outspoken about humanity’s existential issues, writing for a piece that appeared in the Guardian last year that, “Now, more than at any time in our history, our species needs to work together.”
Hawking continued to say:
“We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans. Together, they are a reminder that we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it.”
Indeed, taken at face value, such words of warning do appear to read a dire forecast for our species. Let there be no mistake, the threats humanity faces are very real, and we should not undermine the potential for danger that some among the most well-educated in our midst are championing in this way. The threat is real… but for the time being, it is also merely that: a threat, rather than a reality.
And this is all the more reason why now is the time for action.
If the impending threats presented by the potential for nuclear war, climate change, pandemic outbreaks, or even widespread destruction resulting from such things as an asteroid impact are to be avoided, the call to action must occur now… and hence the necessity for all the “doom speak” we are hearing from the scientific community these days. We don’t know precisely what the future holds, but there is more than enough potential for the appearance of issues that may stunt our progress, or even hinder our survival, if we aren’t vigilant about the reality of the threats we face right now.
Thus, we see the necessity for addressing these issues in a timely manner, and in a way that accepts the scientific consensus on important issues, along with political parties (and politicians) that will take the problems seriously.
No, the world isn’t ending… yet. With a little luck, and a lot of work, maybe we can keep things that way… but the threat is as real as it has ever been; we, together as “team civilization”, have to be mindful of this as we move forward into the future.