Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Opinion | Rationality could yet turn the Doomsday Clock back

With peace so fraught with uncertainty, who knows what might flare up into a nuclear holocaust?

Only an anxiety-ridden country would go about life with the intensely-focused eyes of a tiger on the clock. Not the one that tells the time, but the symbolic one that began its tryst with entropy in 1947 to warn us how close we’ve pushed our planet to doom. Set originally at seven minutes to midnight (which marks the end of the world), it does not move much. Not enough to draw nails into teeth, let alone be the focus of humanity’s will to survive. It has seen less than two dozen shifts in seven odd decades, this Doomsday Clock, eight of them backwards. In 1991, not long after the Berlin Wall was taken apart, it was a whole quarter behind the US-Soviet atomic test scare of 1953, when it read two-minutes-to-doom. Last January, it took half a tick rightward to the same reading, and has stayed there since: the closest ever to catastrophe.

Like that clock, most apocalyptic visions are of Western origin, no doubt. “Something about the drama of annihilation seems to grip us," as Morgan Freeman’s gravelly voice has it on a NatGeo show. “Is it just human nature to worry and wonder about the end of days? Or is it really coming?" So he asks in “The Apocalypse" episode of The Story Of God With Morgan Freeman (2016), an engaging watch if you get past the urge to cringe at the Western tint of its lens and warm up instead to the subtle irony of his style. But while Armageddon, qayamat, rebirth and other religious precepts may explain why popular perceptions of our final fate vary so widely, only scientific inputs are supposed to set the clock.

It is run, after all, by Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a non-profit organization, and its time is crunched out by an academic panel with inputs from over a dozen Nobel laureates on threat watch. And we do have the means to turn our species extinct.

As set right now, 11.58 reflects a “new abnormal", in the Bulletin’s words, with life as we know it threatened by nukes as well as climate change, both worsened by the “increased use of information warfare to undermine democracy around the world". The point of this grim exercise is not to fan fears, but avert disasters. For this, myths need to be shed, risks weighed by logic, and action taken (if possible), the kind of stuff that—as Peter Bernstein argues in Against The Gods: The Remarkable Story Of Risk—heralded an age of reason long before the first atom was split. Today, on any calculus, if the end of humanity is too high a cost for us to bear, then even a slim chance of it should justify vast resources to reduce that risk.

Of the two big dangers we need to stave off, the projected ravages of carbon exhaust rage a lot louder across the world than the prospect of millions getting carbonized in a nuclear war. It figures. Emissions are easy to track and we’re doing a lousy job of scaling them back. Yet, panic on this score seems premature. Tirades of the Extinction Rebellion, an environmental movement, for example, tend to sound way overblown, even though it could easily arm itself with a Hegelian case for alarm: Since we have gone from flint-rock hardship in a viable world to fossil-fuelled comfort in an unviable one, we need a synthesis that lets us live well on a liveable planet before it’s too late.

Emissions, unless they’re nocturnal, are also easier to talk about than the Mutually Assured Destruction of a nuclear exchange. Game theorists say that this very “balance of terror" assures the world safety. Yes, it’s the “gnash equilibrium": So long as teeth are evenly gnashed on both sides of a face-off, no one has anything to gain and lots to lose by firing off a nuke.

But nukes, let’s face it, are kept on hair-trigger alert, and a panic attack isn’t just a health hazard. In 1983, it took the good sense of a Soviet defence officer to hush up what turned out to be a false signal of an incoming missile. The very existence of a red button at the top of each combatant’s command shortens the odds of a knee-jerk launch. Worse, if mutual relations get ruptured beyond rescue and expectations go out of whack, it would arguably compound the risk of a mishap.

If the long hand of the Doomsday Clock is to stall another tick away from survival, then a surge of rationality in South Asia will probably have to do the trick. It has barely been a dozen-odd weeks since Pakistan appeared to rattle a nuke at India over Kashmir—where there’s no saying what the lull of a state-imposed muzzle has masked. Tension has mounted. Hard-nosed analysts caution that if not an outright error, then a slide of either country into chaos or a major act of terror could doom us. In the latter scenario, fury might escalate into a fireball, as lessons from the 2002 stand-off suggest. Pakistan, meanwhile, has sought to outline its own version of what could do the deadly deed, though some observers are inclined to dismiss it as a bluff.

An oblique factor that has sadly flickered to relevance in India is an internal fissure along lines of faith. As hyper-nationalist social forces take on new shades, the nerves of those who feel alienated or besieged also tend to get frayed. Flashpoints could arise over a wide range of matters, drawing into contest an assumed consensus on equality, justice, freedom of conscience, and other essentials of our unifying bond, as it were, the Constitution.

With peace so fraught with uncertainty, who knows what might flare up into a holocaust? As a risk, this may not be frightfully alarming. Alas, it’s not trivial either.

Aresh Shirali is Mint views editor.