In 1947, another metaphorical Midnight Hour was put in place: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists — a non-profit organisation and publication peopled by scientists — developed the symbolic “Doomsday Clock”, setting it at seven minutes to Midnight. Midnight, back then, stood for how close humanity was to annihilating itself in a nuclear holocaust. In 2021, the species is closer to than ever to that dystopic tryst with destiny. In the last two years, homo sapiens have been just “100 seconds away” from a human-made, self-obliterating catastrophe.
The dangers to society have not come from the great dictatorships — in 1984, there was no Orwellian 1984. In 1991, with the Cold War over for a year, the clock was 17 minutes from Midnight, the farthest it has ever been. That optimism, it turns out, was misplaced: The end of the battle of ideologies did not lead to an end to nuclear weapons. What has really pushed the clock close to the brink — and kept it there in 2021 — is the parochial, profit-seeking and often petulant ways in which governments have handled the pandemic and their refusal to engage meaningfully with the threat of climate change.
It is not the Bomb or the pandemic that poses the greatest danger. The way our world may well end “is not with a bang”, as TS Eliot put it. He was wrong, though, about it going out in “a whimper”. Given the lack of united purpose in the face of global threats, the lines of Hollow Men might need paraphrasing: This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a bicker.