The Parable of the Doomsday Clock

A nearly forgotten old risk assessment is the Doomsday Clock from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. As nuclear scientists’ bullhorn, the Bulletin’s editors obviously draw on information dark to most of us. In 1947 the Bulletin began its annual announcement of the Doomsday Clock to publicize the risk of massive annihilation by nuclear weapons. Each year they pronounce “how many minutes until midnight.”

Godfathers of the Doomsday Clock were Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer. In contrast to some of their colleagues, both deeply regretted their roles fathering the first atomic bomb. So what has happened since and why?

On January 27, the Bulletin celebrated its 69th annual Doomfest. One more time, scientific and political luminaries barked the risk of nuke annihilation at that day’s news cycle. Only a few media dutifully picked up on it.

We have long lived with possible nuclear annihilation hanging over us. This is why so many people have decided to learn how to cook with no electricity. Since no one can precisely predict such an event, it is a news filler – boring – another plop in a cesspool of info poop. Skeptics poo-poo that doomsday hasn’t happened in 70 years, so what’s new? Besides, if Armageddon does come, it will be far away, to somebody else, but many people have always installed doomsday bunkers in their gardens, with many people still planning to install their own over time, increased business for companies like Sheet piling UK is going to endure a boom if people are taking doomsday serious again.

In 2016, the Doomsday Clock is 3 minutes to midnight, having ticked back down to its setting when the Cold War was at peak ice. Why? The global number of warheads has resumed climbing; up to 30 countries either have nukes or can get them quickly; North Korea is blowing smoke; ISIS stealing one is not beyond belief. Unquantifiable human delusion and game playing underlie our most serious threats. Are you still awake?

Over the years, the Doomsday Clock began factoring in risks peripheral to nuclear detonations: the risks and impacts of a future Chernobyl or Fukushima; accidents within nuclear storage sites; processing and transporting nuclear materials; climate change affecting living organisms in addition to radioactive pollution.

The methodology of risk analysis has matured and standardized too. It combines the impact of a future change with its likelihood. The Institute of Risk Management certifies people in the methodology. ISO even has a standard for it: ISO 310000.

The graph below is from a comprehensive risk assessment prepared for the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It folded the risk of nuclear weapons into the risk from all weapons of mass destruction. For example, chemical and biological agents can be as devastating as nukes.

The center of interest of a risk assessment is also important. The perspective of the center of interest tees up biases. Since the graph below centers on the global economy, it shows more financial risks than risks of any other kind. An assessment centering on a company would doubtless be biased toward risks to that company’s business model. A risk assessment centered on survival of the human race would broaden the risks identified, but still be biased toward human systems. One centered on global ecologies might decrease the human bias, and we might thereby gain some insights otherwise overlooked, but bias-free is impossible.


Economic Global Risks Landscape, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 3.34.21 PM

We apologize for the small, fuzzy copy. Annihilation by weapons of mass destruction is the brown square at the upper left. The original graph is also small, but it has interactive features that let you toy with it for better understanding. ____________________________________________________________________

Risk analysis has a logical format, but paradoxically, it must impartially factor in human “irrationality.” For example, nuclear radiation is an emotional bugaboo that few of us understand clearly. Another is storing radioactive materials for thousands of years. When storage risks extend into the deep future no action taken now can guarantee that it will be safe for all time. What to do? Deny risks, go nuclear, and hope for the best? Or follow the precautionary principle and abandon use of all highly radioactive materials.

Finally, although risk analyses’ purpose is to guide future planning, they tend to map risks to the status quo, and they are incomplete. We can’t see “back swans” in a dark room. And they seldom address “human irrationality” – our sense-of-purpose problem.

But how does J. Robert Oppenheimer fit into this picture? Today he is remembered as a physics genius and technical head of the Manhattan Project – the first A-bomb. However, he had close friends in the American Communist Party. In 1954 his security clearance was revoked, and the McCarthy hearings emasculated his public policy influence, but he kept going.

The Doomsday Clock P.R. campaign was doomed to obscurity. By design it tries to let the public glimpse what insider scientists see. However, that design also fails to stir people to feel what the scientists feel. What the scientists wanted was a sense of social purpose to prevent new technologies turning on us, threatening to obliterate humanity.

Oppenheimer and some fellow scientists began to question the long-term consequences of technical advance. At the time they were drowned out by the likes of Edward Teller (Dr. Strangelove), a tireless proponent of technical advance, especially nuclear, and who testified against Oppenheimer at his security clearance hearing. Teller actually proposed projects like using nuclear blasts to create artificial harbors. This split in sense of purpose is still evident among scientists as well as economists.

In 1960, Oppenheimer and friends established The World Academy of Art and Science, which now has about 700 members. (Check the site if you like deep digs into counterintuitive views of the world’s problems.) Significantly, the Academy’s name combines art and science. A quote from a recent paper reveals how it has evolved:

“At some point economists (and all scientists) must begin to perceive society as a mental, spiritual and emotional whole and not as a deterministic mechanism consisting of autonomous units.”

This sharp jab at the ethos of technological, competitive, consumptive societies is more than a beef about how the world now works. It presents alternative beliefs. The fellows of The World Academy of Art and Science would not regard notions of Compression Thinking as strange. If you have ever heard of the Academy, you are in a small minority, but keep looking. You will find a surprising number of like-minded people.

All such colonies of change today have a common problem: How to propagate a new sense of purpose quickly enough to make a difference. Our long-term survival will require “new techniques,” but they are not enough. Something much deeper, a new belief system with a sense of planetary purpose must guide action. If you have ideas for translating this new ethos into action join with us. That’s what we are trying to do.

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