This Doomsday Endgame Could Last A Long Time

Earlier this month, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists counselled the leader of the free world about the apocalypse.

“Dear President Obama,” the journal’s science and security board wrote in an open letter, “2012 was a year in which the problems of the world pressed forward, but too many of its citizens stood back.” They darkly warned of nuclear proliferation, bioterrorism, climate change, and “cyber technologies” which “could trigger a new kind of self-inflicted Doomsday”.

Yes, doomsday. The bulletin scientists are the keepers of the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic clock face that shows how close the world is to global catastrophe. The clock is now at five to midnight. Their letter announced it is unchanged since last year – the scientists are not budging. According to this well-credentialled hive mind, we’re still teetering on the edge of annihilation. Indeed, we have been for 65 years.

But perhaps the scientists would be better described as the clock’s guardians, a word which has a more mystical, Star Trek quality. That’s the thing about prophets of the apocalypse. They’re always so confident; so impressed by their own insight.

When the clock was first set in 1947, it was seven minutes to midnight. The furthest it has ever gone back is 17 minutes, at the end of the Cold War. The bulletin first threw climate change into the mix in 2007; a transparent bid for relevancy, just as using the word “cyber” is now.

The clock has some particular political views. When Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office they pushed it closer to midnight. When Obama became president they eased the clock back. Reagan had said that to end the Cold War, the free world would have to win it. This was a lot more prescient than Obama’s Nobel peace prize.

Of course, we’re nowhere near five to midnight. It’s sometime in the afternoon. The world is safer and more free than ever in history. We got through the entire Soviet-American contest without a nuclear shot fired. And even the most extreme models of global warming don’t predict catastrophic destruction but gradual change.

To paraphrase Adam Smith, there is a great deal of ruin in a civilisation. But to believe that problems threaten the civilisation itself is a triumph of fear over experience. We should not be complacent. But we should be sober. Judgment Day keeps being postponed.

The Doomsday scientists are a secular variation on an old type – apocalyptic preachers in modern garb. They’re not talking about science, they’re preying on anxiety. Why would anybody really believe “cyber technology” would bring us closer to Armageddon? No reason, unless they were convinced mankind is inherently suicidal. The bulletin’s open letter to Obama must be the first time software has been described as an omen of the end of days.

Still, a prophet who prophesied modest challenges to be overcome in the fullness of time would be ignored. The end needs to be nigh.

An American preacher Harold Camping predicted the rapture would occur in May 2011. He’d only made this prediction a few years earlier. Just as he predicted in 1992 the world would end in 1994. In other words, he gave enough time to persuade sympathisers it was going to happen, and not too long for them to lose interest.

Once again, poor old Camping had to explain why his prophecy didn’t occur. Secular millennialists don’t embarrass so easily.

This was a lesson environmental fearmongers learnt early. Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) is a famous book in the green tradition but few care to remember Ehrlich included specific scenarios of starvation and nuclear winter set in the 1970s. The most fretful now simply say we’ve reached the climate ”endgame”. Here’s a prediction – that endgame will last for a very long time.

Armageddon sells. We like drama, and nothing is more dramatic than global catastrophe. The human brain isn’t very good at dealing with risk. We overestimate the likelihood of major, conspicuous events like nuclear war and terrorism, and underestimate more pedestrian dangers, like drowning in a bathtub.

And doomsday flatters those who fear it. It’s an in-group thing. While the rest of the population naively goes about their business, insiders are worrying about events to come. This is as true for the Christian kids who devoured the Left Behind books about the rapture – they are the saved ones who understand the secrets of the world – as it is for the Whitehaven hoaxer Jonathan Moylan. Defrauding the sharemarket only seems ethical if you believe coal is an existential threat to civilisation. And if you do, well, securities law is for mere mortals.

In a speech in 1903, an optimistic H. G. Wells conceded: “One must admit that it is impossible to show why certain things should not utterly destroy and end the entire human race and story.” Hypothetical catastrophe has sustained apocalyptic preachers for thousands of years.

Wells is right: we can’t absolutely guarantee the worst won’t happen. But we should ignore the people desperate to assume it will.