Asteroids, supervolcanoes, nuclear war, climate change, engineered viruses, artificial intelligence, and even aliens — the end may be closer than you think. This is the last in a series of essays drawn from editor Bryan Walsh’s new book End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World, which hits shelves on August 27 and is available for order now. We’re not helpless. It’s up to us to postpone the apocalypse.
On January 24, 2019, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists — a journal that has tracked the threat of human-made apocalypse since the dawn of the nuclear age — announced the new setting of its Doomsday Clock. It was two minutes to midnight — the same as the year before, tied for the latest since the Clock began keeping time. In keeping the Clock unchanged, the Bulletin made the only decision it could. The world hadn’t gotten perceptibly worse over the course of 2018; there were even some improvements, but on balance it hadn’t gotten any better, either.
The Bulletin had an apt term for the state we now find ourselves in, circling the drain of Armageddon: a “new abnormal,” as the physicist Robert Rosner put it the day of the clock unveiling, “a disturbing reality in which things are not getting better and are not being effectively dealt with.” It’s not that we find ourselves in a new state of existential fear — we’ve had reason for such fear since the Trinity test on July 16, 1945. But that fear has largely bred not passion but paralysis. Though we can imagine the end of the world all too easily, we can’t imagine coming together to save it. And that creeping futility is what we must overcome.
The Doomsday Clock is a brilliant symbol, but a symbol is all it is. There is no countdown to the end — at least not one we can hear. But if our current existential risks worsen with each passing year, and if we continue to add new ones, the odds of our long-term survival will be short.
The hopeful view is that what appears to be ever-increasing existential risk is actually a temporary bottleneck created by new technologies we can’t yet control and by environmental…