Blithely, the world’s political, military and financial leaders strut toward existential catastrophes while never questioning the rightness of their actions. This arrogance has caused leading scientists to push the symbolic clock of global destruction to three minutes to midnight, notes Nicolas J S Davies.
By Nicolas J S Davies
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of the “Doomsday Clock” 2 minutes closer to midnight. After 3 years at 11:55, the new edition published in January shows the hands of the clock at 11:57, with the dire warning, “It Is 3 Minutes to Midnight.”
Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has warned the world of the threat from the weapons invented by its original authors: the scientists who built the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The cover of the first issue unveiled the powerful image of the Doomsday Clock, with its hands at 11:53, next to the caption, “It Is 7 Minutes to Midnight.” Since then the atomic scientists have moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock back and forth 21 times: up to 11:58 – 2 minutes to midnight – for most of the 1950s as the U.S. and U.S.S.R. tested and deployed hydrogen bombs and missiles to deliver them; and back to 11:43 in the early 1990s as the Cold War ended and the U.S. and Russia honored new treaties and reduced their nuclear arsenals.
The Bulletin’s Science & Security Board consults with its Board of Sponsors once a year to review the existential dangers we face, now including climate change, and to decide whether the hands of the Doomsday Clock should be moved.
The present Board of Sponsors comprises 17 Nobel Prize winners and 20 other eminent scientists and experts, including Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, Martin Rees and other public figures. Collectively they make up a unique brains trust whose advice the people and political leaders of the world should take very seriously.
In their latest bulletin, the atomic scientists explained why they advanced the hands of the Doomsday Clock to 3 minutes to midnight for only the 3rd time in its history.
“The threat is serious, the time short,” they wrote. “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists does not move the hands of the Doomsday Clock for light or transient reasons. The hands of the clock tick now at just 3 minutes to midnight because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty – ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization.”
The Bulletin compared today’s predicament to the last time they moved the hands of the clock to this position in 1984, as the U.S. pursued a destabilizing, treaty-busting “ballistic missile defense system.” In 1984 they wrote, “Every channel of communications has been constricted or shut down; every form of contact has been attenuated or cut off. And arms control negotiations have been reduced to a species of propaganda.”
And yet, within a decade, the leaders of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. engaged in serious diplomacy to make the world a safer place, and the hands of the Doomsday Clock moved back to 17 minutes to midnight. The atomic scientists are equally alarmed today as when the world previously arrived at three minutes to Doomsday in 1949 and 1984.
They write, “stunning government failures have imperiled civilization on a global scale, and so we implore the citizens of the world to speak clearly, demanding that their leaders” take five vital steps:
—“Take actions that would cap greenhouse gas emissions at levels sufficient to keep average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels” – adding that this is “evidently achievable if national leaders show more interest in protecting their citizens than in serving the economic interests of the fossil fuel industry.”
—“Dramatically reduce proposed spending on nuclear weapons modernization programs” – placing the blame squarely on the U.S. and Russia, who “have hatched plans to essentially rebuild their entire nuclear triads in coming decades undermin(ing) the global disarmament regime.”
—“Reenergize the disarmament process, with a focus on results” – once again placing the impetus on the U.S. and Russia.
—“Deal now with the commercial nuclear waste problem, regardless of the future course of the worldwide nuclear power industry.”
—“Create institutions specifically assigned to explore and address potentially catastrophic misuses of new technologies.”
The return of the hands of the Doomsday Clock to 3 minutes to midnight begs the question, “Why?”
–Why is the most technologically advanced civilization in history unable to follow basic precautions for its own survival? –Why do our political and business leaders ignore our most respected scientists when they tell them they are leading us toward disaster – or even oblivion?
–Why do our political and economic systems seem unable to keep pace with our science and technology?
The catastrophic irresponsibility exhibited by our leaders is undergirded by ideology, but today’s dominant neoliberal ideology and the corrupt institutions it has built are not the product of genuine, objective efforts to understand how the world works. They are the result of redoubled corporate and plutocratic investment since the 1970s in politicians, parties, elections, think-tanks, the public relations industry, the media and academia.
Margaret Thatcher famously asserted that “there is no alternative” to the neoliberal counter-revolution that she and Ronald Reagan spearheaded in the 1980s. Even Reagan’s Vice President, George H.W. Bush, attacked his neoliberal policies as “voodoo economics,” but they have since been consolidated across most of the world with the collaboration of pro-big business “center-left” parties like Tony Blair’s New Labour in Britain, the Clinton-Obama Democrats in the U.S. and now Hollande’s Socialists in France.
Lady Thatcher provocatively referred to Tony Blair and New Labour as her “greatest achievement.” The true measure of the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution was not how they changed their own parties but that they remade their opposition in their own image, marginalizing progressive politics for a generation and clearing the way for the neoliberal transformation of society.
The movements of the Doomsday Clock give new and unintended meaning to Francis Fukuyama’s suggestion that the triumph of neoliberalism and the fall of the U.S.S.R. signaled “The End of History.” Since the atomic scientists breathed a little easier in 1991 and reset the hands of the clock to 11:43, they have since moved inexorably back toward midnight, leaving us once again 3 minutes from Doomsday in 2015.
Meanwhile the concentration of wealth and political power engineered by neoliberalism has left the ordinary people of the world seemingly impotent to press on our leaders the demands that the atomic scientists tell us are vital to our future.
However appealing Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” remains to those who have ridden it to unprecedented wealth and power, neoliberalism has revealed itself after only one generation to be a dangerous dystopia. When such an ideological system threatens our very existence, finding an alternative is essential.
Neoliberalism’s latest experiment, the destruction of 25 percent of Greece’s economy through austerity and debt slavery, has forced the Greeks into the unenviable but heroic position of leading the search for an alternative – with the people of Spain close behind them. Governments that prioritize capital growth and profit over all else by definition sacrifice all the other interests of their citizens, not least our vital needs for peace, shared prosperity and social justice, and the very future of the world we live in.
The economist J.M. Keynes is reputed to have described laissez-faire capitalism as “the absurd idea that the worst people, for the worst reasons, will do what is best for all of us.”
Neoliberalism has handed the reins of our future back to this same class of “worst people” that Keynes and his colleagues began to wrest it away from in the mid-Twentieth Century. Defining the prime responsibility of governments as the service of capital simplifies the task of managing a complex world. But quite apart from privileging the “worst people,” this reductionist model over-simplifies the role of government in society to a kind of “government for dummies.”
It provides guidelines for policy, and the results are profitable, since profit is enshrined as its guiding principle. But imposing such a reductionist model on a complex world ignores too much of reality. The human needs marginalized by neoliberal “political reality” increasingly defy the imagination of leaders indoctrinated with this deficient ideology, leaving more and more of the world riven by war, chaos, social alienation and environmental degradation.
The atomic scientists implore the public to impose reason on our leaders. But our corrupt leaders have responded to growing public awareness of the dangers of their policies only by shielding them behind ever-thicker veils of propaganda and secrecy.
Even when many of the public see through the fog of propaganda or brave whistle-blowers help us to pierce the veil of secrecy, we still face the huge challenge of exerting influence over unaccountable or secret policy-making.
As I detailed in a recent article, U.S. leaders deliberately plant false versions of events in the mind of the public, falsely blaming their enemies, from Saddam Hussein to Vladimir Putin, for the violence and chaos they themselves unleash on country after country. Self-serving (but profitable) media companies broadcast and reinforce these propaganda narratives, even after the lies they are based on have been publicly exposed.
In response to that article, book editor Susan Maret sent me an essay she published titled, “The Corrupting Influence of Secrecy on National Policy Decisions.” It was written by J. William Leonard, who retired in 2008 as the Director of the U.S. Information Security Oversight Office after 34 years of federal government service.
Based on his unique experience, William Leonard wrote, “What I learned as the top classification overseer in the executive branch is secrecy can act like a toxin in the body politic. In government, as in other institutions, excessive secrecy ultimately makes for flawed decisions. It undermines our constitutional form of government, weakens the rule of law, and facilitates actions inconsistent with our nation’s core values and beliefs. Official government secrecy is in many regards a relic of the Cold War that has outlived its usefulness.”
At their worst, U.S. government propaganda and secrecy shield systematic war-crimes and existential threats from exposure and accountability, but they equally cover up routine, day-to-day incompetence. Altogether we are left with a toxic soup of criminal, corrupt and failed policies in every area of public life, from foreign policy to healthcare.
In an interview about the Senate’s CIA torture report, journalist Mark Danner noted that one of its most revealing findings was “how amateurish the torture program was. It was really amateur hour.”
In one case, the CIA paid more than $80 million to two retired Air Force psychologists with no previous experience in interrogation or counter-terrorism to devise brutal torture techniques that were as ineffective and counter-productive as they were criminal.
In The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay, Jess Bravin, the Supreme Court correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, reveals the same combination of criminality and incompetence in the program for military commissions to prosecute the perpetrators of September 11th.
Despite repeated and consistent warnings from military lawyers, the U.S. government so tainted its cases against al-Qaeda leaders and innocents alike that it has failed to hold any of the culprits criminally responsible for one of the deadliest crimes in U.S. history. By kidnapping, torture and setting up kangaroo courts designed to rubber-stamp illegal executions and indefinite detention, our leaders failed in the very task they themselves defined as their highest priority.
For the sake of this incompetent charade, they have put all our other needs and priorities on the back-burner for over a decade, wasted trillions of our tax dollars and killed hundreds of thousands of people in wars that continue to destabilize at least a dozen countries.
And yet, in the neoliberal looking-glass world of our political and business leaders, it is we who are out of touch and “irrelevant”: the public, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, climate protesters, the Occupy movement, whistle-blowers, the Greeks and the “low-life scum” who call for the prosecution of American war criminals.
Why do we challenge the invisible hand of the corrupt “market” that determines who will be rich and who will be poor, who will live and who will die? Why must we peer behind the curtain of propaganda and secrecy to see what our government is really doing or failing to do behind our backs? Why don’t we simply trust that, “whatever mistakes they have made,” our leaders are making the best of a bad job?
The final conclusion of the new report from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists provides a sober and compelling answer to all these questions: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.”
Like Fukuyama, Margaret Thatcher accidentally got one thing right, when she declared, “There is no alternative.” There is no alternative to finding an alternative.
Nicolas J. S. Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. Davies also wrote the chapter on “Obama At War” for the book, Grading the 44th President: A Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.