Just a minute!

The big hand of the “Doomsday Clock” has advanced to five minutes to midnight. Defending its decision, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists noted, “Two years ago, it appeared that world leaders might address the truly global threats that we face. In many cases, that trend has not continued or been reversed.”

The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic clock face, maintained since 1947 by the board of directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago. The closer the clock is to midnight, the closer the world is estimated to be to global disaster. As of 10 January 2012, the Doomsday Clock stands at five minutes to midnight. Originally, the analogy represented the threat of global nuclear war, but since 2007 it has also reflected climate-changing technologies and new developments in the life sciences and nanotechnology that could inflict irrevocable harm. Commenting on the Doomsday Clock announcement, Lawrence Krauss, co-chair of the BAS Board, said:

“Unfortunately, Einstein’s statement in 1946 that ‘everything has changed, save the way we think,’ remains true. The provisional developments of two years ago have not been sustained, and it makes sense to move the clock closer to midnight, back to the value it had in 2007. Faced with clear and present dangers of nuclear proliferation and climate change, and the need to find sustainable and safe sources of energy, world leaders are failing to change business as usual.”

Krauss noted that inaction on key issues and rising international tensions motivate the movement of the clock. He identified the major challenge at the heart of humanity’s survival in the 21st century as how to meet energy needs for economic growth in developing and industrial countries without further damaging the climate, exposing people to loss of health and community, and without risking further spread of nuclear weapons.

The clock was moved forward after an international symposium that raised questions such as: What is the future of nuclear power after Fukushima? How are nuclear weapons to be managed in a world of increasing economic, political, and environmental volatility? What are the links between climate change, resource scarcity, conflict, and nuclear weapons? What is required for robust implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention?

The scientists do not appear to have asked who is listening. Certainly not Iran and North Korea. Certainly not the military-industrial complex or its unofficially sanctioned dealers in death. Certainly not those nations that have reneged on climate change agreements. They and countless others merely applaud Antony who, in Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra, says:

“Let’s have one other gaudy night. Call to me
All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more;
Let’s mock the midnight bell.”

A bleak outlook? No. It lies in the hands of ordinary people to mobilize and to bring governments and global corporations to account. 2011 bore grave witness to civil society’s power to contest, protest, and bring about political change. This year, working together, people could move the Doomsday Clock back to 18 minutes to midnight – never seen since its inception!

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