So we're still 100 seconds from doomsday.
Not literally, of course. Not that I know of, anyway.
But the science and security board of the nonprofit Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced last week that it was keeping its famed Doomsday Clock set at 100 seconds before midnight for the third year in a row — midnight being the metaphorical time of the end of the world. And the end of the world does seem to be on a lot of people's minds given the record-breaking run on Netflix of "Don't Look Up," the Leonardo DiCaprio-Jennifer Lawrence film about a planet-killing comet headed straight toward Earth.
So, what does 100 seconds mean?
As with many things, knowing where you are now depends on knowing where you've been.
Tell me your favorite baseball team is three games out of first place and, well, OK. Tell me that a week ago they were nine games out and that's interesting. Tell me they were ahead by three games a week ago, that's a completely different picture.
The context here is that the Doomsday Clock — created 75 years ago by scientists, some of whom had worked on the Manhattan Project, and meant to measure the risk of nuclear war before expanding to consider climate change and other threats — was first set at 7 minutes before midnight.
In 1991, flush with optimism from the end of the Cold War and a landmark nuclear arms reduction treaty signed by the United States and the Soviet Union, the Bulletin wound the clock back to 11:43 p.m., 17 minutes before allegorical midnight. But humans being humans, and the world being the world, the clock began creeping back toward anticipated disaster.
In 2017, it moved up 30 seconds to two-and-a-half minutes 'til extinction with the Bulletin citing a lack of progress on nuclear weapons and climate change, the rise of nationalist movements, and "disturbing" and "casual" talk about nuclear proliferation by then-President Donald Trump. In 2020, the clock moved to its present 100 seconds, its first time under 2 minutes to midnight.
So, yes, 100 seconds is precarious, in the view of the experts in nuclear risk, climate change, disruptive technologies, and other fields who are the clock's timekeepers.
But it's important to note that the clock's setting is not the product of an algorithm. There's no equation with lots of variables where you plug in numbers and it spits out a time. It's a feel kind of thing, based on opinions — the opinions of very learned, very well-informed people who study these matters for a living, but opinions all the same.
So you're free to measure it against your own feelings and your own learned experience — as long as you, too, are rooting those in facts.
That the clock didn't move from last year was ominous, according to the Bulletin. "Steady is not good news," said George Washington University professor Sharon Squassoni, co-chair of its science and security board.
The Bulletin cited many factors in its assessment. Tense relations between the U.S., Russia and China and efforts by all three to develop hypersonic missiles. North Korea's continued missile testing. Russian troops on Ukraine's border. A lack of action to meet climate goals. A continuing insufficient global response to COVID-19. The pursuit of biological weapons. Ongoing internet-based disinformation, especially that which convinced some people of the lie that Joe Biden didn't win the presidential election in 2020, part of the slide of America down every index that evaluates the strength of democracies.
Given all that, and the sense of unsettledness many feel about things in general, staying in the same place — not deteriorating — doesn't seem so bad, even if the measure is metaphorical. It's not enough to shake the unsettledness, but it might be enough to set the stage for better times ahead.
Treading water is OK when you've been drowning. But sooner or later, you've got to get ashore.
Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.