The current and concerning issues that face us all are not confined to the big explosions and environmental disasters. In terms of the risks presented to societal security, not to mention the long-term economic and social structure of the Western World, Phillip Wood assesses why we should perhaps consider a little more carefully what the effects may be in respect of our attitudes towards a changing and dynamic international narrative.
For those of us who are ‘baby boomers’, born and brought up during the thick fog of the Cold War, the idea of the Doomsday Clock is probably vaguely familiar. The Doomsday Clock has been set and maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in the United States since 1947 to provide some degree of estimate of the potential for global disaster, primarily in a nuclear context.
The end of the Cold War didn’t mean the demise of the Doomsday Clock. In fact, last year it was reset to ‘three minutes to midnight’ (midnight being the point at which it all goes wrong), the highest setting since 1983.
Interestingly, the Bulletin’s website states: “Three minutes (to midnight) is too close. Far too close. We, the members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, want to be clear about our decision not to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock in 2016. That decision is not good news, but an expression of dismay that world leaders continue to fail to focus their efforts – and the world’s attention – on reducing the extreme danger posed by nuclear weapons and global climate change. When we call these dangers ‘existential’, that’s exactly what we mean. They threaten the very existence of civilisation and, therefore, should be the first order of business for leaders who care about their constituents and their countries.”
Now, this is quite worrying stuff overall. The concept of an indicative clock that provides us with some illustration of the gravity of the overall geopolitical, technological and environmental issues which are accelerating us towards the end of civilisation as we know it is maybe something that we find interesting, but it’s perhaps not too accurate. The current assessment that informs the Doomsday Clock is based around issues and problems that may seem a little remote from our day-to-day issues.
That said, perhaps the Doomsday Clock itself could do with some additional nuances. For example, although the concern is about the complete destruction of society, what about those influences and issues which may not necessarily bring about complete and utter destruction, but will nonetheless have a significant effect on our ability to continue to manage and run our societies in the ways in which we’ve traditionally become accustomed?
It’s worth considering the changing face of politics and allegiances as well as realignments of everything from our national sovereignties to the way that we conduct our business. In the UK, we’re currently grappling with our approach towards the European Union (EU). The debate is raging as to whether we should ‘Remain’ within the EU or ‘Leave’. Open and vested interests are being discussed and delivered in terms of the potential impacts upon us in just about every area of discussion. Speaking on behalf of the ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’ campaigns, our politicians are explaining to us that either scenario will have an impact upon our homes, shopping, security and trading landscape.
Of course, our immediate neighbours are also concerned because the impact upon them will also be more than considerable. For example, how will the Republic of Ireland, with its established and strong ties to the UK, be exposed if we do happen to vote for an EU exit?
Many are confused by the conflicting arguments around the EU Referendum. The discussion will be relatively pointless once the decision to stay or go has been made. Our relationship with Europe will have changed, and of course if we do decide to depart then that change will be pretty significant.
More widely, the result of our integration or otherwise into the EU will perhaps be less of a concern than how we configure ourselves going forward to understand and think about the wider threats and issues present on the horizon. Understandably, we are presently quite worried and concerned about Islamist terrorism, and the power shifts and changes in the Middle East and their profound impacts upon Europe. The flow of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa has already had a telling effect on our approach and attitudes towards our borders and the constituent elements of our own societies.
Support and understanding
The inevitable result of the huge change in demography in some areas of Europe over the coming years will mean that there will be wider change in impact to absorb and consider. There’ll be an increasing diversity and, in tandem with this, a burgeoning requirement for support and understanding towards those who are seeking to join and become part of our societies and communities.
On the flip side of the coin, there are those who will wish to resist this change in demographic and the new shape of Europe as we move forward. Whether the turbulence that we’ve experienced in the past few years in relation to the turmoil in Iraq, Syria and North Africa continues to impact upon us, and whether there’s a continued acceptance or a real societal lack of will to accept the new face of Europe, remains to be seen.
What we can be assured of is that the presence of change will always engender change resistance. This may be understandable. It’s reasonable to consider that there may be a degree of instability ahead.
Looking to the East
Let’s also look eastwards at Russia. In recent years, there have been various military moves perpetrated by the Russians that, in the previous century, may well have pushed us towards a state of armed conflict. I’m not entirely sure that those days have quite left us. Indeed, the potential for armed interaction between the West and Russia still remains something that should concern us all.
Of course, the shadow of the Cold War and nuclear conflict is something that has faded, but it hasn’t disappeared. Escalation being what it is, and human failings being what they are, along with the fact that there are still significant stocks of nuclear weapons available to those who may wish to use them means that the risk remains. Set within that context, the potential for the Doomsday Clock to continue to make its way towards midnight is no less grave than it ever was.
The benefits that came with the dismantling of the Soviet Union have probably not been as evident to the Russians as they are to the rest of Europe. The mobility and openness that arose with glasnost remain, but there’s an ambition and a strong vision under the current leadership in Russia to maintain strength and regain and retain its status as a leading and highly influential global power. The recent flexing of muscles and assertive moves have been clear statements of that.
How far Russia is actually prepared to go in order to maintain its footprint and its identity as Europe continues to grow is an interesting question to pose, and one which will continue to exercise the minds of those who are interested in whether the Doomsday Clock is wound forwards or backwards.
Addressing global warming
In more recent years, the other contribution towards the Doomsday Clock has been the idea that global warming is something we must absolutely address if we’re to avoid total and complete catastrophe.
Global warming has always been something of a (please forgive me for the pun) slow burner, with those who believe and those who refuse to believe at odds about its cause, effect and eventual impact upon our general societal well-being. However, there appears to be a dangerous lack of will and capability to address this issue with any degree of rigour.
I’m not so sure that the Doomsday Clock ticks on simply because of bombs and weather. Perhaps we need to think very carefully about what it is that’s taking us towards midnight. Perhaps, and more importantly, we should also remember that there are different time zones in operation across the global stage, so what may be midnight for some could well be midday for others. Either in terms of perception or truth, some regions of the world are not as close as others to the midnight scenario.
In our constantly changing and dynamic part of the world, though, we really do need to keep a close eye on what may help to wind the hands of the clock forward.
Phillip Wood MBE MSc is Head of the School for Management and Professional Studies and Head of Department for Security and Resilience at Buckinghamshire New University