20210128 doomsday clock
The Doomsday Clock reads 100 seconds to midnight Image Credit: AFP

“How many seconds till it’s midnight?” This is the kind of question you ask on New Year’s Eve, waiting with bated breath for the boisterous clapping and cheering, accompanied by expressions of good wishes to usher in the new year.

Ring out the old and ring in the new, as the expression goes. Or earlier, on Christmas Day, especially if you are younger, you hope to be next to someone beautiful and steal a kiss under the mistletoe, a custom going back to Norse mythology in Scandinavia.

But what if midnight refers to the Doomsday Clock? The clock has become a worldwide symbol for man-made catastrophes which can end human life.

Recent op-eds by Prof Makarand R. Paranjape

It was started by the British Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1947 to signify the threat posed to humanity by our own science and technology, especially a nuclear holocaust. World War II had ended, India and much of the colonised world was — or soon to become independent — and climate change had yet to start bothering most.

But today, we are witnessing strange and unnatural weather phenomena the world over. Unheard of temperatures in Canada, soaring to 45 degrees C in British Columbia, forest fires burning through the winter in Colorado, tsunamis and storms across the US, very hot or very wet weather in the subcontinent, landslides and floods in China, rivers dying or drying up, deserts advancing, and icebergs melting in the polar caps. Perhaps, more than politics, economics, or even warfare, it is climate change that might prove the greatest disrupter in this century.

The clock is ticking

Our doomsday clock started ticking long back, but some 65 million years back, when mammals, took over the planet, things started accelerating. The human species is relatively young, going back just about 200,000 years. Sophisticated linguistic abilities, domestication of animals, agriculture, reading and writing are even more recent, not much more than 10,000 years old.

The industrial revolution is only 200 years old and the World Wide Web happened barely 30 years back. If the lounge durée of planetary existence is one year, human existence occupies just about 100 seconds. And of these 100 seconds, are we, so to speak, in the last second of 12 months of planetary existence?

Perhaps, it is better to go back to the Doomsday Clock which gives us a little more metaphorical time to set ourselves and our ecosystem right. The clock was originally calibrated at 7 minutes to midnight in 1947. It has subsequently been moved both forward and backward several times.

According to its symbolic measurement, we were farthest away from self-inflicted doom in 1991, when we were a full 17 minutes from the dread hour of midnight. Where are we today? Unfortunately, much, much closer to the finale — less than 100 seconds from the end.

Although the threat of thermonuclear self-annihilation may have abated considerably, we face the terrible consequences of global warming and harmful lifestyles that can cause us irreversible damage. The result of the latter, as we have seen all too well during the Covid19 pandemic, is the high mortality rate among those who have comorbidities and belong to vulnerable sections of the population.

The major cause? Inflammation. A natural response of the body to any perceived threat, excessive or prolonged inflammation leads to disease, premature ageing, even death. We are all familiar with how those suffering from severe coronavirus experienced a “cytokine storm,” which sometimes proved fatal. Cytokines are tiny protein particles or peptides which function as immunomodulating agents. They signal our immune system to react, sometimes pushing it into overdrive.

Today, our ecosystem itself is inflamed. The Buddha had said long ago in the Ādittapariyāya Suttā, “Look, O Renouncers, all is on fire!” What he referred to, our burning senses and passions, which cause us so much inner turmoil and unrest, today applies to Mother Earth.

It is as if there is a cytokine storm in our planetary system. Nothing short of a state of environmental emergency. Nature’s own immune response may actually see humankind as the threatening virus and take unprecedented corrective measures, such as the present pandemic.

But the silver lining to this dark cloud is that when humanity was under lockdown or in retreat, the earth seemed to reset itself. The air was less polluted, the rivers and oceans cleaner, the other species of animals and plants began to thrive, fish returned to ponds, even to the canals in Venice, and the birds came out to sing in the overcrowded cityscapes. The pandemic has actually helped restore, albeit partially, the earth’s ecosystem. But is that enough? Not really.

A dreadful year just gone by

All of us need to do much more to make 2022 better than the dreadful 2021 just gone by. Conscious living, conscious eating, conscious breathing, conscious consumption, conscious action, and conscious compassion — these are the well-tested and traversed pathways to a better life.

Much of the damage that we do to our own bodies and to our extended body, planet earth, is reversible. But the healing can only happen if we are aware and committed to change.

Earthlings need to come together, if not to form a world government, at least to institute international governance on crucial issues such as energy, water, food, natural resources, movement of people, and social justice. A crisis is the best time to change for the better. Will humanity rise to the occasion?

Let us begin, simply and modestly, with ourselves. Let that be our new year’s resolution. To live more responsible, more aware lives, to really take care of our health, the health of those we love, and thus of the whole planet. And what are the pillars of well-being? They are proper nutrition, sleep, exercise, meditation, stress-reduction, and emotional balance. Not as hard to manage as we might think at first.

Before we reach the zero hour and run out of time, we owe it to ourselves and the future generations at least to try.