Needed: The Domesday Clock

08Jun16

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists produces a Doomsday Clock, created in 1947 and currently set at three minutes before midnight, to dramatize how close the world is to nuclear war.

Someday, such a holocaust may indeed annihilate most or all of humanity. But that is not the full story. The Bulletin itself acknowledges that climate change has emerged as a competing concern — that the human race might flicker out, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Extending the point, it is also possible that humanity will not be extinguished at all, but will rather endure future centuries of darkness, hardship, disease, and strife.

We have been there before. We might go back. And the Doomsday Clock captures only part of that possibility.

The Domesday Book is a work of the Middle Ages, completed nearly a thousand years ago. We think now of the Middle Ages as a benighted period. But in fact the situation in Europe at that time, around the turn of the millenium, was far better than the earlier Dark Ages that followed the fall of the ancient Roman Empire. According to Britannica.com, that earlier period was “marked by frequent warfare and a virtual disappearance of urban life” or, more broadly, “a period of intellectual darkness and barbarity.”

Many people in developed societies assume they will enjoy a never-ending ascent to more improved conditions. For a substantial portion of the world’s population, however, that ascent has only begun; for another substantial portion, progress has stalled out; and for many — including many in developed nations — it has reversed. There is actually no guaranteed bright future. To the contrary, it may be that what goes up must come down. Most likely, there will always be waves of progress and retreat, as civilization does better in some eras and worse in others.

Everything that was pulled together and improved in Rome was capable of coming apart and deteriorating thereafter. The Bulletin‘s expansion of scope, adding climate change to nuclear war, is a reminder that today, as in Rome, there are many signposts, on the path down from the summit. We could return to an age of poverty, ignorance, and torture. We must consider the risks of contagions and pandemics, religious wars, and tyrannies. We are already confronted with the more mundane prospect of debt, corruption, crumbling infrastructure, and other forms of decay.

Doomsday is always a possibility. But so is a return to the world of the Domesday Book. The scientists behind the Doomsday Clock, or others like them, should develop a Domesday Clock, by whatever name: a calculation of where we stand, on the road back to the Dark Ages.

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