In the super-connected, superfast 21st century you could be forgiven for thinking nuclear holocaust is a long way away.
No-one’s building concrete bunkers in their back garden, governments are letting the fire alarms fall into disrepair, and Russia isn’t threatening a land invasion. Not of us, at any rate.
But you’re forgetting that we are now super-connected and superfast. Insults, stupidity and rage spread around the world in the time it takes to send a tweet. In such a world, holocaust is on a hair-trigger unimaginable in the more fraught, less frenzied 1980s.
Yesterday scientists announced that the Doomsday Clock – the theoretical timepiece which indicates how close we are to apocalypse – was at 2 minutes to midnight. This is the same as it was last year.
But context is everything, and the only other time since the clock was created in 1947 that it has been this close to doom was 1953. By that point, the USA, Soviet Union and UK had exploded a total of 36 nuclear weapons. Of COURSE it was 11.58pm on the last day of humanity. We were bricking it like Danny Dyer at an etiquette exam.
And now it’s 2019. Only the North Koreans are playing with radioactive fire, and they’re more likely to wipe themselves out rather than anyone else. It’s not the same, right?
No. It’s worse.
In 1953, the USA was led by a five-star general and the USSR by a reformer. Both were experienced political operators, desperate for nuclear supremacy, and ordered massive expansions in their weapons programmes.
The years that followed involved 206 US bomb tests, 145 Russian ones, 21 French, and 20 British. You will be unsurprised to learn that the Doomsday Clock didn’t move for 7 years – we teetered on the brink.
The clock moved back to 11.48pm in 1963, when a partial test ban treaty was signed. A promise not to sell the weapons technology released the pressure again in 1968, but the clock ticked down once more when India exploded a device in 1974. After getting stuck at 11.57pm for a good chunk of the 1980s, the clock wound all the way back to 11.43pm in 1991. The wall came down, East and West reunited, and David Hasselhoff sang us all a song.
And here’s the problem. Every time the clock was moved forward, it was because of a horrible bang. Every time it moved back, it was because people did something to stop the bangs.
This time, we’re at the same point as we were in 1953, even though NOTHING HAS GONE BANG YET.
In 2019, the USA is led by a president suspected of tax fraud, highly-blackmailable sexual shenanigans, and being in the employ of an enemy government. His closest associates have been convicted of money-laundering, acting against US interests, lying and accused of collusion with enemies of the state.
Donald Trump has not exploded a single nuclear weapon. But during his time in office, the Doomsday Clock has only ever ticked DOWN.
His response to North Korea’s nuclear naughtiness was to try to drop intelligence programmes, cancel military training manoeuvres, and hold a summit whose single achievement was enabling the North Koreans to make a mockery of him.
They were so good at it, he even wants to do it again. That’s top trolling.
Trump doesn’t run the world; but he does influence it. His brand of self-harm has infected other nations and leaders, who see no merit in unity. While agreement on nuclear weapons has held, it’s disintegrated on climate change, decarbonisation, and trying to ensure we don’t all burn, asphyxiate or drown.
To add to the fun, Trump has withdrawn from a deal with Russia to eliminate short and intermediate range nuclear weapons. He trashed a bargain which enabled Iran to develop nuclear technology slowly, which means they can now do it quickly.
And he’s dissolved the world’s diplomatic consensus, giving Russia free reign to tromp through emails, China the ability to conduct cyberwarfare, and North Korean hackers to hold the NHS to ransom. They might have done all these things under another president, but under Trump they’re guaranteed a total lack of joint action.
It’s no coincidence Trump has had to postpone the State of the Union address for just the second time in history. Not only has he tiny-handedly paralysed his own government, he’s done it for a policy most of his people don’t think is important enough to merit it.
The last time it was postponed was in 1986. Not because of the then-raging Cold War, but because the Challenger space shuttle blew up and Reagan decided talking TO the nation took precedence over talking AT it.
Trump has, without firing a single nuclear weapon, produced the same kind of worldwide existential threat as 36 nuclear explosions. He has considered the one growing nuclear menace and allowed it to get worse, while making a stable nuclear hazard less stable.
And confronted with a second global peril to all of our existence, he has declared that he knows better than scientists, buried reports by his own experts, cut funding for those experts to do their work, foiled an international agreement on fixing the problem and declared it doesn’t matter because the USA is "right now at a record clean".
In 1953, climate change was an undiagnosed and indistinct concern. Exploding nuclear weapons in the air, underwater, in the ground or on the moon all seemed like a great idea, and the world was divided smack down the middle. But there was hope, there were protests, and we had Chuck Berry and Albert Einstein and Dorothy Parker.
In 2019 climate change is burning through California, washing away the Pacific Rim, and buggering up the Barents Sea which has been ice for the past 12,000 years. Lunatics have the freedom to tinker with atomic matter, protests go unnoticed and we have just one ray of hope.