Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Five Minutes to Midnight

Back in January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, famed mavens of homo-suicidal doomsday estimation, nudged forward their symbolic clock to five minutes to midnight, nearly as close as it has ever been (see timeline below). As the Pax Americana recedes in the 21st century, to be replaced by "empire" de elsewhere (to borrow Nail Ferguson's analytic notion of empire), one wonders if their opening is flourish or accurate:

We stand at the brink of a second nuclear age. Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices. North Korea’s recent test of a nuclear weapon, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a renewed U.S. emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials, and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia are symptomatic of a larger failure to solve the problems posed by the most destructive technology on Earth.

As in past deliberations, we have examined other human-made threats to civilization. We have concluded that the dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons. The effects may be less dramatic in the short term than the destruction that could be wrought by nuclear explosions, but over the next three to four decades climate change could cause drastic harm to the habitats upon which human societies depend for survival.

Meanwhile, Jan Feeman, writing in the Boston Globe, takes on the collqialism, "existentional threat", that seems to have made its way into the GOP tallking points or the Administration's policy wonkers, and asks whether people are going to 'buy it' in our age of inflated everything:
But will the American people buy it? I'm doubtful. Phrases like existential conflict and existential threat may sound grave and gloomy when our leaders wield them, but nothing can protect them, in this land of free speech, from casual or jokey or ironic use. "Being born is an existential threat, because it means you're gonna die," noted one blogger, in response to the doomsday rhetoric. "Did existential just become a fancy word for big?" demanded another.
I've always thought that terrorisism can be conceptualized in an everyday way as a moral challenge. For me, "existential" cuts it, only insofar as the logically implied invitation of terrorism is for everyone to come and do wanton battle outside the gates of Hell. Unfortunately, the term "existential" has too many other overtones to make it useful, in that regard.

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