Doomsday Clock Jitters and How to Fix a Broken Planet

In January of every year for the past 75 years the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists publishes an updated setting of the Doomsday Clock. The clock is a metaphor for how close or far humanity is from the brink.

Coincidentally, on the heels of the resetting of the world-famous clock this year, Julian Cribb, who is one of the world’s most erudite science writers, is releasing a new book: How to Fix a Broken Planet, Cambridge University Press, 2023.

Cribb’s book has entire chapters that deal with every major concern of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. He describes in detail the very issues that disturb the Science and Security Board members, and he offers solutions to those same issues that served to nudge the iconic clock to its most intimidating, most threatening, most unnerving level in over 75 years: 90 Seconds to Midnight.

According to the Board, as of January 24, 2023, the new setting: “A Time of Unprecedented Danger. It is 90 Seconds to Midnight.”

This year, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moves the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward, largely (though not exclusively) because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine. The Clock now stands at 90 seconds to midnight—the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been. (Source: Bulletin Statement…Link to full statement)

As of today, the iconic clock has traveled far from its courageous beginnings when it first registered the dangers of nuclear annihilation in the 1940s. Today’s modern version of the enduring clock includes worldwide concerns: (1) climate change (2) bioterrorism (3) artificial intelligence and (4) damage inflicted by mis/disinformation. These elements fuse together as a potential cataclysmic event registered by the clock’s setting vis a vis a midnight hour imagery of apocalypse.

In a fascinating coincidence of mutual awareness of missteps and human frailty, Cribb’s book addresses the same issues as the Bulletin, and much more. It is an indispensable reference for solutions to what ails the world. For example, Chapter 4 Nuclear Awakening pages 44-53: “The greatest single risk of human extinction among the 10 catastrophic threats that comprise our existential emergency is still nuclear war. However, the core issue is that conflict can originate with almost any one of them – with food shortages leading to international disputes over food, land and water, in quarrels over dwindling fish, forest, energy, etc.….” (p. 47)

“An instance of how mega-risks may compound into nuclear war is the long-standing animosity between India and Pakistan, chiefly over Kashmir, terrorism, and the waters of the Indus River which feed both countries at a time of growing climate stress. Even a relatively limited nuclear conflict between the two – 100-150 warheads of Hiroshima scale- is projected to kill 100 million people directly and 1-2 billion people worldwide as the resulting ‘nuclear winter’ would cause harvests to fail and food supplies to collapse all around the planet.” (p. 47)

Furthermore, on dozens of occasions because of human error or technical miscue or active threat, the world has come dangerously close to the brink of nuclear conflagration. As Cribb explains, it is a “terrifying history of which most people remain ignorant.” (p. 49)

Cribb describes seven solutions to the nuclear threat (p. 49-51) and informs individuals of what they can do, actively supporting citizen campaigns to ban nuclear and much, much more. “Understand that a nuclear inferno is a growing threat to you, your children, and to all of posterity. It exists 24/7. It is most likely to be the cause of human extinction. The fact that it has not happened in the last seventy years does not mean it will not happen. The risk is now greater than at any time since atomic weapons were invented.” (p. 51)

Another chapter that hits the bullseye of threats to society that’s also recognized as a serious threat by the Board: Chapter 11 – Ending the Age of Deceit: “Perhaps the deadliest pandemic ever to strike humanity is the plague of deliberate misinformation, mass delusion and unfounded beliefs which is engulfing twenty-first-century human society.” (p. 127)

Misinformation is an all-inclusive threat that humanity has seldom faced on such a massive scale. It’s literally an out-of-control epidemic that crushes the foundations of established principles. Cribb references a study by Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom, stating: “Misinformation has reached crisis proportions… it poses a risk to international peace, interferes with democratic decision making, endangers the well-being of the planet and threatens public health.” (p. 127-28).

The motive behind spreading lies and conspiracy theories runs the gamut from monetary greed, political advantage, malice, and hatred of others to ruinous ignorance, the most dangerous element of all the dangers. “The problem of mass delusion is compounded by signs that humans are less intelligent than they were a generation or two ago. Recent research has found that human IQ has declined by around 13 points since the mid-1970s.” (p. 131)

Cribb says a solution to shortsighted, laughable ignorance is to reframe all economic, political, religious, and narrative discourse in a place that calls upon everyone to help develop a worldwide plan for survival in the face of unprecedented challenges, requiring worldwide leadership at all levels, media, teachers, religious leaders, and actively involved citizen groups forming an Earth System Treaty negotiated internationally by all countries in a uniform plan to “fix our planet.” Thus, overriding, overshadowing ignorant chatter and its blockhead stupidity of bold-faced lies.

The crucial significance of Cribb’s book is found in its introduction: “We humans are facing the greatest emergency of our entire million-year existence. This is a crisis compounded of 10 catastrophic risks, each of our own making. These threats are deeply interconnected and are now arriving together. However, their collective scale is so vast and their relationships so complex that few yet understand the peril they place us in.” (p. 5)

According to Cribb, the world needs a “survival revolution.” And that is precisely what How To Fix A Broken Planet explains in detail and with solutions. It’s a fascinating, enjoyable, quick read filled with uppermost classroom quality facts that ultimately point to an Earth System Treaty with an Earth Standard Currency that literally stands the neoliberal brand of capitalism on its head and establishes value for the biosphere.

Julian Cribb is an ideal adjunct of the breadth and depth of core analysis by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, a group of 18 experts with backgrounds in public policy, diplomacy, and worldwide trends with advice from a Board of Sponsors, which includes eleven Nobel laureates.

The initial setting for the Doomsday Clock in 1947 was seven (7) minutes to midnight. The furthest from midnight occurred in 1991 at seventeen (17) minutes to midnight on the eve of the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War.

According to the venerable clock, the most threatening years are the most recent, 2021 and 2022, both set at 100 Seconds to Midnight, a result of global nuclear/political tensions, COVID-19, climate change, a surge of disinformation undermining the integrity of democratic institutions and increasing biological weapon threats. Now, the two most threatening years have succumbed to a new low of 90 Seconds to Midnight.

Never has civilization been so much at odds with itself.

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Robert.