In their slow and earnest diction, in the way they furrowed their brows and stared out at the small audience, the panel of experts seemed desperate to convey the danger of the present situation. More than one framed the Clock’s assessment as a rebuke to a government suffering from attention deficit disorder, fed a diet of junk by a juvenile news-entertainment complex.
“Ultimately, governments and international institutions—and, to some extent, the media—are not dealing adequately together with the serious global problems we face,” said Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University and the chair of the Bulletin’s board of scientific sponsors.
“We therefore return again to our plea to the people of the world: If governments are not acting to protect you as they should, you need to take the lead,” he said. “You need to demand action.”
“It’s easier to understand and follow and have opinions about the Kardashians than some of the issues that we’re talking about,” Bronson added. “That in many ways is the power of the Doomsday Clock, in that it gives us a way to talk about whether the world is safer or at greater risk than it was last year ... It gives us a way to talk about these enormously complicated issues in a way that real people can have real conversations.”
This was the third Doomsday announcement that I’ve observed. They’re always confronting events, especially as the Bulletin has grown more and more worried. In 2015, the Bulletin moved the clock to three minutes to midnight, citing the risk of climate change and several national programs to modernize nuclear weapons. Last January, the clock ticked another 30 seconds forward, as the board fretted over the loose nuclear rhetoric of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
But there was something especially dismal about this year’s announcement. Many Americans know that the world has gotten more dangerous in the last few years (which would be true, by the way, no matter who won the 2016 election). But the necessity of daily life—of doing homework, having a career, going to the gym, getting dinner on the table—has compressed that fear into an ignorable background hum. And so the country once known for its can-do spirit has begun to adopt a personality tic more common in besieged cities and late Soviet states: Well, yes, the situation is terrible, but who has time to feel something about it?
How much have we become numb to? China has begun to erect refugee camps on its North Korea border. The U.S. military has started updating and stockpiling crucial matériel in the region. United Nations sanctions are described in the press as a “last test of whether any amount of economic pressure” can force the country to relent. “Are we preparing plans for a preventive war?” asked H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, in an August interview. “The president’s been very clear about it. He said he’s not going to tolerate North Korea being able to threaten the United States.”