90 seconds to midnight

This is a translation in English of the article published on the Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano

The Doomsday Clock is a metaphor that represents the threat to human existence from dangerous technologies. It was created in 1947 by scientists who were part of the Manhattan Project, the project that led to the development of the first atomic bomb. The initial positioning of the clock was based on the threat posed by nuclear weapons, which were considered the greatest danger to humanity at the time. Today, the clock is set at the closest time to midnight ever, signaling an increased threat to humanity from a variety of sources, not just nuclear weapons.

Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist who played a key role in the Manhattan Project, was strongly opposed to the use of atomic bombs in war. Together with other scientists, he advocated for a public demonstration of the weapon in an uninhabited area as a means of pressuring Japan to surrender. However, the bombs were ultimately dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, causing immense devastation. In response, Szilard and other Manhattan Project scientists formed the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists with the goal of informing the public about the implications of science and technology for humanity. For 75 years, the Bulletin has been an independent, non-profit organization that publishes a free-access website and a bimonthly magazine. Its mission is to bring together a diverse group of informed and influential voices to discuss man-made threats and inform the public and policy makers.

In 2007, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists expanded its scope to include the threat of catastrophe caused by climate change and “disruptive technologies”, such as bio-security and cybersecurity, in its determination of the Doomsday Clock’s time. The Bulletin’s Science and Security Council, a group of 18 experts with diverse backgrounds, meets twice a year to discuss current events, policies, and trends and announces the new time setting in January. The farthest the clock has ever been from midnight is 17 minutes to midnight, which occurred in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. In the past, the clock has been set to 2 minutes past midnight twice: first in 1953 due to the United States and the Soviet Union both testing thermonuclear weapons, and then in 2018 due to the “breakdown of the international order” of nuclear actors and the lack of action on climate change. In 2020, the clock was moved closer to midnight than ever before, with 100 seconds to midnight. This year, due to growing dangers of war in Ukraine, the clock was moved even closer to midnight, at 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to global catastrophe.

It is no longer a matter of debate whether the conflict in Ukraine is by proxy between NATO and Russia, when even the Ukrainian defense minister has confirmed this. The idea that there could be a limited nuclear war between the two super-powers is simply a fairy tale told to appease public opinion. The only way out of this situation is the diplomatic route, but it seems that diplomats are nowadays more engaged in war: diplomacy is about sitting down and talking to your counterpart to understand what the problems are and how to solve them, and not continuing to throw petrol on the fire. On the contrary, many think, with Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin, that ‘there is no other option but for Ukraine to win’. One wonders: but are there any adults in the room? It seems not, indeed, the post-war lesson on international equilibrium seems to have vanished in a short time. Over the past year, thanks to pervasive propaganda, there has been a poisoning of the wells of public discourse to make the conclusion that the only solution is acceptable and necessary war. This has been the task of most of the media: to replace a rational analysis with the emotional message that yes it may be a bit harsh, but you must teach these Russians a lesson or else you will be condoning the law of the most bullying. This is ultimately the message, hypocritical and insane, that has been passed on by appealing to anti-communism (the Russians are the children of the communist system as we are of the fascists and the Germans of the Nazis) or in any case to Russophobia, which is much more deeply rooted and goes back several centuries. We must not fall into the trap of going after the promise of the new weapon that will change the course of the war, and we must press as hard as we can not to move the hands even closer to midnight. Contrary to NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg’s assertion that ‘weapons are – in fact – the way to peace’, we prefer to remember the lesson of George Orwell who used almost the same words, ‘war is peace’, to paint a dystopian world that we only wanted to see in the cinema. 


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