Those of you who are familiar with the Doomsday Clock probably know that humanity’s day is nearly over – both figuratively, and if the prognosticators who set the hands of the clock are correct in their assessment, literally.
In fact, the Science and Security Board has estimated that we are sitting at three minutes to midnight in our final day.
We haven’t been that close to the end since 1984, when cold war tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union could have liquefied nitrogen. (For the edification of our youngsters, the Soviet Union, or USSR, was an empire of provinces and states built around current-day Russia. They were evil, and Canada was part of the USA-led team opposing their attempts to destroy the world and drown all our bunnies and kittens.)
The world was once even closer to humanity’s demise. The clock was set at two minutes to midnight in 1953, the year I was born.
I like to think that it was the result of a misapprehension of the impact I would have when I grew up, and the clock was reset the following year, adding an extra five minutes of grace when they got to know me.
It was that, or it could have been the US announcement that it would step up its work on the hydrogen bomb, orders of magnitude more powerful than the atom bombs that were used to decimate Nagasaki and Hiroshima. A few months later, right about the time I was clamouring to get out into the world, the Soviets exploded a hydrogen bomb of their own.
For decades after that, most of the impetus for moving the hands of the Doomsday Clock came from the threat of nuclear annihilation. When treaties banned weapons or tests, we gained minutes, and when political fingers inched closer to the launch buttons, the minutes melted away.
The end of the Cold War in 1991 pushed the minute hand back to a full 17 minutes to midnight.
And then it turned out the Russians and Americans weren’t going to be as friendly as we all hoped, countries like India and Pakistan got the nuclear jitters for each other, and the clock started ticking again.
But now, ironically, the clock has traded in its nuclear reactors for solar power. Climate change has pushed the hands back to near-vertical.
But the good news is that the clock only estimates humanity’s time. Back when the main threat was nuclear, we were poised to destroy the entire biosphere, leaving perhaps a few cockroaches and shrews to repopulate the planet.
Climate change is likely to be more forgiving to a wider range of survivor species.
And of course, climate-change deniers will survive – because as the anti-vaxxers and the anti-gmo-ers and the 6,000-year-earthers will attest, it’s what you believe that will save you, not what’s real.
If we manage to beat midnight this time, the next threat on the horizon is fascinatingly unreal: artificial life.
Forget plants genetically modified to resist pesticides or grow faster. Forget the “golden” rice that is terrifying the anti-science crowd with its ability to save millions of people from blindness. Forget goats that make spider silk or bacteria “programmed” to produce antibiotics.
Artificial life is miles beyond that. Most of the components of living cells have now been created in test tubes, without even a nod to old-fashioned methods designed by nature, many of them built from amino acids that don’t exist in nature.
They are inches from being put together to create truly alien life.