Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Doomsday Clock

The Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has just moved the hands of their symbolic Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight. It now stands at 11:55. Midnight on the clock represents the occurrence of a world-wide catastrophe. Over the years since the clock was established in 1947 it was typically assumed that the catastrophe would be nuclear. Lately, though, the Bulletin has broadened its focus to include other threats. The closest to midnight that the clock has ever been set was two minutes to midnight in 1953, just after the United States and the Soviet Union conducted hydrogen bomb tests. The farthest from midnight it was ever set was at seventeen minutes to midnight just after the dismantling of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.

The Board of the Bulletin offered two main reasons for moving the clock ahead. The first is the decades-old threat of nuclear weapons. Personally, I have not given much thought to nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War. We sure used to give a lot of thought to them. They did re-enter my consciousness in recent days. Last summer I read Neville Shute’s On the Beach (1957), a chillingly leisurely depiction of the last few months of one of the last groups of survivors following a nuclear cataclysm. A few days ago I visited a local video store that, because it was going out of business, was selling all its VHS movies for $1.00. One of my purchases was The Day After, a 1983 television movie about the aftermath of a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and United States. The film focused on Lawrence, Kansas, which somehow made it worse. I mean, I’m accustomed to seeing Tokyo destroyed by giant fire-breathing dinosaurs (Godzilla) or Washington and Los Angeles being wiped out by aliens (Independence Day) but to see nuclear devastation in Kansas—now, that was scary.

The atomic scientists are concerned about developments in the nuclear arena about which we should all be concerned. Following is part of their statement.

We stand at the brink of a second nuclear age. Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices. North Korea’s recent test of a nuclear weapon, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a renewed U.S. emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials, and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia are symptomatic of a larger failure to solve the problems posed by the most destructive technology on Earth.

One scientist pointed out that just fifty of the nuclear weapons that exist today could kill 200 million people. The “failure to adequately secure nuclear materials” is what concerns me the most; it raises the very real possibility of a rogue nation or a terrorist group gaining access to a nuclear weapon.

The scientists had another reason besides recent troubling developments in the nuclear sphere for moving the Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight. Let me quote the Board’s statement again.

We have concluded that the dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons. The effects may be less dramatic in the short term than the destruction that could be wrought by nuclear explosions, but over the next three to four decades climate change could cause drastic harm to the habitats upon which human societies depend for survival.

I’m no scientist, but to my layman’s mind the evidence that the huge amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the earth’s atmosphere by the over-use of fossil fuels is the main cause of global warming that is leading to dangerous climate change is convincing. If leading scientists are concerned, then I’m concerned.

The question is, what should we who are Christians do about all of this? Here are a few suggestions, all of which need much fleshing out.

1. Prayer is always a good thing.

2. Living eco-friendly lives, such as driving high-mileage cars, will help, especially if enough of us try.

3. Encouraging corporations by our spending habits and encouraging legislators by our communication and votes to do more to promote the development of alternative fuel sources would be positive.

4. Working for peace is necessary. We can start with our neighbors and with those in our own communities. We can commit ourselves to having and showing respect for those who speak a different language, who come from a different culture, and who practice a different religion.

5. We can influence our congressional representatives and our executive branch to engage whole-heartedly in the mutual reduction of nuclear arsenals by the various nations who have them.

6. We can encourage those same leaders to offer every possible incentive to developing nations to try to prevent them from acquiring a nuclear arsenal.

The bottom line is that we should do whatever we can. The principle of the second greatest commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) and the principle of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (everybody is your neighbor) seem to me to demand it.

Oh, I know that the end will come some day. But that seems to me better left in the hands of a loving and gracious God. I see no good that can come from our trying to help it along.

(For the full text of the statement of the Board, visit

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