Yesterday The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists advanced their symbolic Doomsday clock forward by 30 seconds. This is a visual reminder that humanity faces potentially devastating threats. The obvious flashpoint is between nuclear North Korea and the President of America (the WP post linked above does a good job of showing how that escalated last year), but other more insidious dangers lurk.
The generally level-headed Economist argues that we are nearer a great-power conflict than at any time since the end of second world war.
Powerful, long-term shifts in geopolitics and the proliferation of new technologies are eroding the extraordinary military dominance that America and its allies have enjoyed. Conflict on a scale and intensity not seen since the second world war is once again plausible. The world is not prepared.
I’ve written several times about the nuclear threat and certainly see no reason to back away from any of that. I’m also curious what were those 103 incidents in US in the past six years where nuclear material was lost or stolen! But is it true, as Lawrence Krauss and Robert Rosner argue, that
the world is not only more dangerous now than it was a year ago; it is as threatening as it has been since World War II.
A few cautions. The Doomsday Clock and it’s board is not some final arbiter of truth on this. It’s likely that all of its members share a broadly similar worldview. There are no members from Africa, Latin America and thin on representatives from Asia. There are no Muslims from what I can tell. Is the world equally at risk? Does the world see the existential threats the same? Almost certainly not: so some salt needs taking.
I think we’re living through an epochal change in lots of different ways. The world is shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy at an accelerating rate and there are equal shifts in computing, robotics, transport, to name just a few. Yet each shift comes with threats and challenges. There are always winners and there always losers.
Some of our biggest threats remain ones which we can do nothing about – devastating natural disasters that remain mostly unpredictable and unpreventable. In this regard the world is as dangerous as it has ever been but in a more connected world the fall out from these can be greatly amplified.
I think if you live in most places in the Southern Hemisphere the world is already a sufficiently dangerous place with corruption, famine, violence and tyranny endemic in much of the Global South. Climate change will only exacerbate these pressures. Migration will be a huge issue for decades to come. Millions will continue to seek a better life elsewhere yet if life becomes better at home then it’s likely that will only increase the pressure on an already fragile eco-system.
Despite the fact that we live on a blue planet, fresh water is not a well-managed resource and more cities are likely to find themselves in Cape Town’s position. Food will be a challenge and an increased population will stress fishing, farming and land and in some places to breaking point.
And over the next thirty years the world is expected to cope with another 3 billion people. These are enormous challenges. The rich will mostly be fine, I’m not so sure about everyone else. Perhaps it is two minutes to midnight after all.