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Tick Tock: The World Blunders 2 Minutes Closer to Doomsday

02/17/2015 04:59 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2015

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of the "Doomsday Clock" two 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 posed by 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 and other well-known 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 Doomday Clock moved back by 14 minutes to 11:43.

The atomic scientists are just as 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 5 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 to disaster - or even oblivion?

- Why have our political and economic systems failed 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 really works. They are the work 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 Bush Sr., attacked his neoliberal policies as "voodoo economics," but they have since been consolidated across much 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 but accurately called Tony Blair and New Labour 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 moved the hands of the clock back to 11:43, they have since moved them only closer to midnight, to leave 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.

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 an ideology threatens our very existence, finding an alternative is essential. Neoliberalism's latest experiment, the destruction of 25% of Greece's economy through austerity and debt slavery, has forced the Greeks into the unenviable but heroic position of insisting that an alternative must be found - with the people of Spain close behind them.

Governments that prioritize capital growth and profit over all else by definition sacrifice all the other diverse 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 the 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 most of reality. Dealing with the people it marginalizes and addressing the problems it causes increasingly defy the limited imagination of leaders indoctrinated with this reductionist ideology.

The response of our deluded leaders to growing public awareness of the danger and inhumanity of their policies has been to shield their behavior beneath ever-thicker layers of propaganda and secrecy. Since the exposure of the web of lies disguised as secrets that was used to justify the invasion and destruction of Iraq, the U.S. propaganda system has evolved to embrace even greater secrecy, prosecutions of whistle-blowers and more sophisticated branding.

In The Foreign Policy Disconnect: What Americans Want From Our Leaders but Don't Get, Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton used decades of polling data compiled by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to demonstrate that most of the crises in post-1945 U.S. foreign policy could have been avoided if our leaders had paid more attention to the views of the public. But how can the public influence secret policy obscured by sophisticated propaganda?

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."

Apart from shielding war-crimes, corruption and other official wrongdoing from exposure and accountability, U.S. government secrecy covers up widespread incompetence. 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 Danner cited, the CIA paid more than $80 million to two retired Air Force psychologists with no previous experience in interrogation or counterterrorism 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 endless 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 committing torture and setting up kangaroo courts designed to rubber-stamp illegal executions and indefinite detention, our leaders have failed in the very task they themselves have defined as their top priority. For the sake of this brutal and incompetent charade, they have put all the public's 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, the climate protesters, the Occupy movement, the whistle-blowers, the Greeks and the "low-life scum" who call for the prosecution of American war criminals.

So why do we challenge the invisible hand of the corrupt "market" that determines which of us will be rich and which of us will be poor, who will live and who will die? Why do we insist on peering behind the curtains of propaganda and secrecy to see what our government is really doing or failing to do behind our backs? Why can't we simply trust that, "whatever mistakes they have made," our leaders are doing their best?

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' final conclusion provides a sober and compelling answer to 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.