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The 10 Most Likely Real-Life Catastrophes

“Disasters — explosions, plane crashes, ship sinkings, major fires­ — we’ve had aplenty, but never a mor­tal blow.”


Previews of Coming Disasters

Catastrophe is in the air: the sense of it is almost palpable. It is our entertainment, our fear, our fantasy, our future. We have come to expect calamity as a matter of course.

Apocalyptic ages before us be­lieved in the end of the world, but then it was a question of man’s damnation and God’s will. Nobody carries signs today saying “Repent, the End is Near” — they don’t need to. So what else is new? we’d say. There is something frivolous about our rapid change from confidence into fear of our scientific accom­plishments, in our swing back to Original Sin, even in our safe en­joyment of film spectaculars like “Earthquake” and “The Towering Inferno.” We seem to accept the immanence of catastrophe yet at the same time refuse to take it serious­ly.

Perhaps that’s because we lack experience. It used to be said that Americans didn’t understand war because their homeland had never been ravaged by one. A broader generalization is that we have been mostly spared from catastrophe. Disasters — explosions, plane crashes, ship sinkings, major fires­ — we’ve had aplenty, but never a mor­tal blow. Consider the casualty fig­ures in what have become our legendary calamities, like the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 which killed from 452 to 700 people or the Johnstown flood which claimed 2200. That the numbers look big is a dead giveaway.

A real earthquake in terms of victims occurred on Jan. 24, 1556, in Shensi Province, China: 830,000 dead, mostly in landslides. In Cal­cutta, in 1737, an earthquake and a cyclone teamed up to take 300,000 lives. Floods? If the Mississippi overflows its banks there is much lamentation and discomfort but not as much as there was along the Yangtze in 1887 when almost a million people perished. Nor let us for­get Noah. Dr. Reid Bryson of the University of Wisconsin believes that the story of Noah is  based on a Sumerian folk hero who lived 5300 years ago in the lowlands of the Tigris-Euphrates rivers and that rains and flooding were so extensive and long-lasting as to change the face of Sumerian society.

At many times over the centuries it must have seemed to those in the middle of nature’s tantrums that whatever the world was made for, it wasn’t people. Three cyclones — or hurricane-type storms — struck what is now Bangladesh in 1965, killing almost 60,000, but that was only a prelude to the cyclone of 1970 that took 225,000, mostly by drowning. It also destroyed the rice crop at har­vest time, contributing to uncounted deaths by starvation. Nature has lost none of its punch. (The 1970 Bangla­desh storm may not have been the worst there. An 1876 cyclone killed between 100,000 and 400,000.)

Those who happily slight science and technology, whose idea of pro­gress is the natural food shoppe and the “Whole Earth Catalog” might ponder what are horribly called disease vectors. The “Black Death” or bubonic plague is thought to have killed 25 million in Asia and Europe in 1340s, three million in 1898-1908 in China and India, and two million more in India in the 1920s. There were four major outbreaks of cholera in Europe during the 1880s with many millions dead — almost one million in 1831 alone. Smallpox in Brazil killed three million in 1560 and Cuba lost a quarter of the world’s population, and the influenza pan­demic of 1917-1919 may have been the single greatest catastrophe in histo­ry, killing perhaps 30 million world­wide and 548,000 in the U.S. Note that the number of humans existing was smaller when these epidemics occurred, and that they claimed statis­tically large portions of the popula­tions.

A particularly eerie affliction struck down whole districts of Western Europe and England in 1200 A.D. A grain fungus grows in continuously wet and mild weather, as then oc­curred, and a few blighted grains in a sack are sufficient to cause a disease called St. Anthony’s fire, which, despite its romantic name, causes convulsions, abortion, the hands and legs to turn black until fingers and toes fall off, and eventu­ally death. But if the blighted grain is stored damp, and there is no other choice, a by-product is produced which we know as LSD. People in other words went to the grave “high.”

Think of that! There they were, extremities turning black and fall­ing off, then dying without under­standing what was killing them or why they had what must have seemed a mystical experience to boot. Surely, they would have asked what was going on. Disease was hardly understood — and certainly tripping wasn’t. In this condition you would, would you not, ponder the mood of the Almighty?

Not today. Today we are causally minded — we understand the reasons for things (or think we do), which may be why we have ceased to believe in and need God, once the all-purpose reason. Understanding confers on us the gift of foresight, the ability to reason in front, to anticipate at least a little of the future. That is a brand-new tool, and per­haps some of the seers and sages who employ it err on the side of pessimism and overstate the hazards ahead. Nonetheless, possible catastrophies predicted far outdo those of the past, either because the population is larger or because man­made dangers have been added to natural ones. Some of these conceiv­able events would directly threaten human survival, and we are right to worry. The question is whether we worry enough. Let us give form to a dozen of what might be calamities to come.

Probability: Uncertain
Possible Magnitude: Elim­ination of mankind.
Timetable: ?

Wars, since they are intended to kill, usually fail to be counted as catastrophes. But in the past, wars, no matter how devastating, always ended sooner or later and normal life resumed until the next one. This is no longer true: at least four kinds of warfare could alter planetary conditions for some time to come, perhaps forever so far as humanity is concerned.

Of the four, three are too familiar to need explication — chemical, bio­logical, and nuclear (reducing the ozone layer, increasing radiation, perhaps depleting atmospheric oxygen) warfare. The fourth, using the environment itself for hostile pur­poses, is potentially the most dangerous. Dr. Edward Teller has said that weather war would be the “last” war, meaning that there might be nobody left to fight the next one.

As brought out in 1974 Senate hearings under Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, the U.S. practiced weather warfare over the Ho Chi Minh trail from 1967 to 1972. The weapon was cloud-seeding and the objective was to soften road surfaces, cause landslides, wash out river crossings, and maintain damp soil for long periods of time. Apparently the program achieved suc­cess, for rainfall in some areas increased 30 per cent or more, with subsequent declines in North Vietnamese traffic. (The Soviet Union has accused the U.S. of having tried to tamper with the weather in North Vietnam too, but we have denied it.)

But the rain-making in Asia was primitive alongside more sophisti­cated possibilities of weather war: “aiming” hurricanes; causing rain to be acidic to knock out equipment; forming or intensifying fog; starting fiery cyclones called “fire storms”; producing earthquakes; detonating atomic devices in the ice pack which, falling into the sea, would cause massive tidal waves; manipulating electrical properties in the atmosphere so as to interfere with normal electrical processes of the brain and bring about disorientation and derangement; inflicting ditto on the enemy’s navy with oceanic vibrations; breaking a window in the ozone layer which would intensify hard, ultra-violet radiation on enemy territory, perhaps destroying all forms of life and turning the land into a desert. Such warfare might be slow­ and insidiously difficult to detect. Weather warfare should not be dismissed lightly: Jacob A. Malik, the Soviet ambassador to the UN made a speech there in 1974 warning of the dangers.

Probability: good
Possible magnitude: Hundreds of millions dead
Timetable: Immediate future.

Much impressive data shows that the world’s climate is becoming  colder of itself, after a time of ex­ceptional warmth. Periods of greater or lesser cold have, of course, been normal throughout history. This new cold, however is different in two vital ways. First, the favorable growing conditions that existed between 1900 and 1910 in­creased the food supply and en­couraged the vast population increases that occurred in places like South Asia. The coming cold would mean heavy rains in the northern temperate zones, reducing the food supplies, and subtropical drought further reducing it. Casualties from famine would be immense.

Second, and even more ominous, man has been changing the atmosphere. From power plants, mills, autos, furnaces, slash-and-burn farming (practiced in most places on earth ), even from millions of feet tramping on dry soil, particles are thrown into the air forming what is called a “particulate cloud.” This cloud, virtually world-wide, blocks incoming solar radiation sufficiently to add to the cooling already underway, with the result of a further decline in mean annual temperature. A drop of only 4-5° F. (2° C), believes Dr. Bryson, foremost proponent of the cooling hypothesis, would be sufficient to initiate a new Ice Age.

Probability: Fair to good
Possible magnitude: Hundreds of millions dead to elimination of mankind 
Timetable: 25 to 250 years.

Will the world end in a shiver or a sweat? Another harrowing view holds that the long-term trend is toward heat — far too much of it.

Man-made heat is still only a frac­tion of that received from the sun but is growing exponentially and may become a pollutant that must be reckoned with. According to Dr. Thomas F. Malone. Director, Hal­comb Research Institute, Butler Uni­versity, we may face one of the major policy decisions of all time. “I refer to the limited capacity of the biosphere to absorb heat … Simply put, the concentration of heat discharged into the atmosphere may turn out to reach a high enough val­ue within the next hundred years that we will have to place restraints on the population, on the population distribution, or on the energy con­sumption per person. The policy im­plications for the world, and in par­ticular for our nation, which has such a high consumption of energy per capita, are obvious.”

According to one calculation, man-made emitted heat will equal absorbed solar heat in 250 years. Mean annual temperature will then have risen from the present 58° F, to 190° F, a level incompatible with human life as we have known it. But as Dr. Robert Heilbroner points out, time may be shorter than that be­cause of sharply rising energy use (meaning heat) and increasing pop­ulations that will need more energy still.

Nor is this quite all or it. Atmo­spheric carbon dioxide is also increasing because of the burning of fossil fuels. CO2 has an important role in the “heat budget,” as it’s called, because it prevents heat from escaping into space, a beneficial function so long as there isn’t too much heat and too much CO2. If man-made heat became an impor­tant factor, and a dense CO2 blanket prevented it from escaping, global heat could rise rapidly, especially if the cooling period ended. In that kind of world, it might be against the law to light a match.

Probability: Highly uncertain
Possible Magnitude: Elimination of all life
Timetable: Starting now

About 20 miles up in the stratosphere hangs a thin layer of ozone that absorbs ultra-violet radiation from the sun and makes life on earth possible. Scientists are deeply concerned that man could destroy this vital shield with nitrous oxides from sub and supersonic aircraft, from the space shuttle, from nuclear explosions or even nitrogen fertilizer. At the moment, the number one hazard is thought to be chlorofluromethane (Freon), a million tons of which are manufactured a year for use as the propellent in aerosol cans and as a refrigerant. Eventually this gas drifts up and destroys ozone. Best estimates say that the Freons already released will deplete the ozone shield three to six per cent. A reduction of only five per cent would cause 8000 new cases of skin cancer a year in the U.S. If the ozone layer were further destroyed, results could include widespread cancer, the disruption of agricultural produc­tion, reduction of the oxygen supply (through the killing of phytoplankton in the ocean), plant and animal mutations, and a global desert.

Probability: Uncertain
Possible magnitude: Elim­ination of higher forms of life  
Timetable: For the global catastrophe, 40 years minimum.  

The well-known doomsday clock on the cover of the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” stands at nine minutes to midnight. When created, this clock ticked away the likelihood of atomic warfare between major nations. Now it must measure as well the potential threat from a starving Third World nation that has acquired nuclear power, and from accidents among the 24,000 breeder reactor nuclear power plants that will be required to provide all the world’s primary energy a century from now. Under present conditions, with nuclear power plants constructed under U.S. safety standards, the “maximum credible” accident, ac­cording to a 1957 AEC study, would kill over 3000 people, injure 40,000, and quarantine agriculture over a 150,000 square mile area. But the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Sierra Club predict 120,000 people killed or made seriously ill. The probability of such accidents in­creases with each plant that is built. The combination of threats from accidents and deliberate acts in han­dling the 15,000 tons of plutonium required for 24,000 plants is so great that the president of the National Academy of Sciences, Philip Handler, has warned: “Somehow, the world must skip the breeder reactor and go from petroleum and coal — liquid, gassified, and solid — to fusion and/or solar energy or it is inconceivable that the human race will avoid a worldwide calamity on so large a scale as to jeopardize the continuing future of our species.”

Probability: Remote
Possible magnitude: Hundreds of millions dead
Timetable: Any time

Epidemic diseases, man’s greatest killers, remain possible, though we think of them as part of the past. New strains of influenza, for example, can occur and vaccines are only marginally effective and probably couldn’t be produced in time to help against a mass outbreak. Further, amid the famine and collapse of the social order many forsee in parts of the world, preventive measures might not be implemented and mil­lions could perish.

An utterly new man-made virus for which no immunization or cure existed, would be a graver menace still. From working with DNA, a molecule that stores and transmits information, scientists have come to believe that genetic engineering, though filled with hopeful possibilities for curing genetic diseases and deficiencies (or even make possible, say, human beings with chlorophyll in their skins who could take energy from the sun, like plants) could lead, by accident or design, to a new incurable disease. So serious is this possibility considered that, last July, pioneers in the field, through the National Academy of Sciences, asked for a voluntary world-wide ban on aspects of DNA research because of its “unpredictable ef­fect.” This February, DNA researchers will meet to try to find a solution to their problem (This may be the first time in history that scientists accept restrictions on the freedom of research other than ex­perimentation with humans.)

Probability: 100 per cent
Possible magnitude: 560,000 deaths plus
Timetable: Any time

Out of the 100,000 earthquakes a year, a few will be major. The only question is where they happen and how many die.

Two large cities located on faults are San Francisco and Tokyo. If a quake of the magnitude of the one that shook Alaska in 1964 (magnitude over 8.6, 20 times larger than the magnitude 8.3 of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake) property damage has been estimated at $10 billion and casualties up to 250,000 and higher if Crystal Springs Dam broke, flooding San Mateo (this dam, however, sur­vived 1906), or if high-rise buildings performed poorly. The problem with San Francisco is that the fault has been locked: instead of slipping slowly, the fault and its “tribu­taries” have not moved since 1906 and a potential movement of 13 feet has been accumulated. By way of comparison, the 1923 Tokyo quake moved nine feet.

As for Tokyo, despite the quake that killed 56,000 in ’23, construction is not much different. The population is, being much larger, and, according to Japanese estimates, 560,000 plus could die in a big quake, espe­cially if (as is likely) a tsunami also occurred, flooding the extensive sub­way system and underground com­mercial development. (Tsunamis can travel at 600 mph; in 1923, one hit Japan twice, having crossed the Pacific and bounced back again.) At Tokyo, a major quake has happened at least once within every 69 years.

Japanese, American, and Russian scientists are all working on earth­quake warning systems, and these illustrate catastrophe problems rather vividly. Suppose the scientists were certain, which they are not, that such a system would work. Would anyone pay for it? And, if it were developed, what would be done? Would politicians, who might be long out of office when E-Day came, warn the public and begin precautionary measures now? Would the public credit scientists, especially as they couldn’t forecast the quake to the precise hour, day, week or maybe even month? Proba­bly not. Today, houses are built, and people live in them, right along the San Andreas Fault.

Probability: 100 per cent
Possible magnitude: 1 million deaths
Timetable: Any time

High concentrations of populations in low-lying coastal zones along established hurricane paths add up to calamity. Dr. Neil Frank, head of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, has estimated that a 40-foot storm surge in Bangladesh (all too possible) would kill one million.

In the U.S., too, terrible things could happen. A hurricane with a central pressure of less than 26 per inches, wind in excess of 200 miles per hour, and tides of 25 or 30 feet 30 feet could easily kill tens or thousands if it struck Miami with little warning. In the Tampa-St Petersburg area, planning officials estimate, as many as 100,000 could die in a major storm. Always, people are reluctant to evacuate an impending storm path until the last minute, figuring the hurricane will miss them or that they can ride it out. In this region especially, last minutemanship will cause tragedy because of the inade­quacy of roads leading to higher ground, much new housing which might not take the effects of flooding, and the advanced age of the popula­tion, making them less mobile.

Even if we could eliminate hurricanes we wouldn’t want to since hurricanes are important in terms of rainfall. Casualties, though, could be reduced with the proper land-use policies, construction codes, and so on. With cloud-seeding, hurricanes may yet be controlled. In the mean time …

Probability: Almost a certainty,
Possible Magnitude: 50 million deaths a year
Timetable: This year? 

Although people have starved ­— and starve now in Asia and Africa ­— the world has simply never known famine on the scale predicted for the coming decades. It is completely outside our experience and almost beyond our imagination. Vast though they may be, the political, moral, and ethical questions that must de­velop from this catastrophe remain almost unexplored.

If there should be severe drought in 1975, Green-Revolutionist Norman Borlaug has estimated that as many as 50 million children would starve unless there were a world “food bank” available. In a normal, non-drought year starvation is a closely related cause for about half of all child deaths in the poor countries. (Famine deaths mean children)

In “Mankind at the Turning Point,” Mesarovic and Pestel divide the world into 10 regions with alternate scenarios for each. With severe but feasible adjustments nine of these regions can survive a decent standard of living assuming that food production keeps up with population increase: this is nowhere guaranteed. But for South Asia (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka — formerly Ceylon) the prospect is gruesome. For this region alone, the following projections ap­pear reasonable:

  • In the next decade: five to seven million child death a year; 20 to 50 million during drought years unless world “foodbank” available.
  • In the second decade: eight to 12 million during normal year.
  • In the third decade: 20 to 30 million during normal years.
  • After: Decreasing fatalities because of population decrease; hence shortages considerably reduced.

The tremendous calamity could be prevented or ameliorated if the birth rates were greatly reduced in these countries, but the probability of that happening is a virtual zero, short of the development and universal acceptance of a miracle contraceptive. In fact, the social disorganization that is likely to accompany the famine may make birth control harder to accomplish. Several decades of exceptionally favorable weather could change things too, but as we have seen the prospect is for more, not less, drought, and if the droughts were exceptionally severe the pro­jected numbers of dead would have to be upped. Besides, if famine were averted by increased food produc­tion, populations might increase still further, raising the specter of famine.

Ninety per cent of the world’s surplus grain is produced in North America and this grain could meet worldwide food shortages if a way could be found to pay for it. (The only feasible means, probably, of giving it away would be to socialize agricul­ture and sharply lower the American style of life, which seems unlikely.) But people thus saved from starvation will continue to bear children at the rate of 45 per thousand (compared to 17 per thousand in the U.S.) and by the end of the century, even under various optimistic assumptions, the Asian food shortage would be greater than the total North American grain production.

Triage, or simply letting those least likely to survive die, has been suggested as the best policy, but such an act, or lack of one, would certainly require a hardening or what moral sensibilities we have and an almost complete change in exist­ing ethics. Besides, triage assumes the chosen victims will meekly accept their fate, and that notion does not correspond with human nature as we know it.

Probability: Good
Possible magnitude: Universal
Timetable: 20-100 years 

In a time perhaps not too distant the world might return to barbarism — or greater barbarism than it now displays — and if we do not classify such a future as a catastrophe then we lack all faith and pride in our civilization.

Any calamity that placed more stress on the world’s delicately bal­anced social system might cause it to crumble altogether. Consider a rise in global temperature. The obvious answer would be to reduce the consumption or fossil fuels, but who would cut back? Suppose the U.S. issued a call for a worldwide energy-­use reduction of, say, five per cent. Third World leaders would inevitably respond, “Who, us? You use a third of the world’s energy as it is. You cut back.” They would tell us, further, that attempts on their part to curtail the output of energy would lead to 1000 guerrillas for every one that exists now, to the collapse of all even vaguely democratic Third World governments and eventually of the West, for how could democratic governments survive in a world of military-Socialist states?

Suppose further that our own gov­ernment then asked or demanded that we reduce energy use by per­haps 25 per cent, an amount large enough, at any rate, not only to decrease thermal output but to set an example for the rest of the world. Would Americans comply? Considering the resistance already met (including the President’s) to the most modest proposals for curtailing energy use, it appears unlikely. We might well expect a reaction far stronger, uglier, and more stubborn than that recently encountered by the attempt to secure racial balance in the Boston public schools — a simple social change by comparison. There might well be an armed insurrrection followed by a right-wing gov­ernment, itself doomed by global antagonsism.

But it’s not necessary to conjure up a severe climate change to arrive at much the same result, for mass famine could do it. The rapidly increasing populations in the poor countries have less and less to eat. They do not get much help from the rich. (The U.S. recent contribution to Pakistan earthquake relief was $25 thousand, compared to Saudi Arabia’s $10 million.) Military govern­ments come to power and refuse to let their people starve while others remain relatively prosperous. They want their share even if what Heil­broner calls “wars of redistribution” or nuclear blackmail are required to get it. A nuclear bomb is hidden in a freighter in New York harbor and set to detonate at X harbor if 10 per cent of the national wealth isn’t pledged in time — a sort of Patty Hearst-SLA model. One way or another, national wealth would be redistributed inter­nationally.

It would not seem likely, in the general poverty of the world, that what we have known as Western civilization would long endure. Most of the proud accomplishments of bourgeois society would be seen as wasteful, expensive, and deeply un­fair, since it would not be the lot of Global Everyman to enjoy or even understand them. The skills and talents which would be permitted to exist would be only those narrow scientific and technical ones which directly and manifestly aid in human survival.

Rather than speculate endlessly, let us point to just one more possible consequence of massive famine. Suppose even looting the treasures of the rich proves to be insufficient medicine, as well it might for if the rich no longer have wealth, they cannot buy what the poor lands need to sell. We could reach a condition of steady-state anarchy: totalitarian nations everywhere, each engaged in continual attempts to raid and pillage others, no matter what their ideological stripe, just to get enough to eat, a sort of post-industrial Stone Age, in which nations would gra­dually break down as entities, fol­lowed by the collapse of regional governments and perhaps local ones. And this state would be steady, that is, it would last until … Oddly, this confirms a physical prediction of how the world will end. The universe, it seems, tries to break down the enclaves of order that represent so­ciety and indeed our world. The universe, it seems, will not be satis­fied until complete disorder is reached, and complete disorder, in these terms, is simply random par­ticles, all exactly the same.


Now then, are you shocked?

No. Numbed, maybe, not shocked.

That is part of the problem. How can we have this doomsday con­sciousness and yet do nothing about saving ourselves until maybe too late? After all, at least some — in fact, most — of the coming catastro­phes could be avoided, or the con­sequences minimized, given battle plans and the will to carry them out.

One reason, perhaps, is that we don’t really take the future seriously, do not really believe that anything very severe will happen, or do not care: (Apres nous, a catastrophe.) If this is true, we must account for our present anxiety on other grounds. The psychologist Leon Festinger has developed the theory of “cognitive dissonance,” holding that the mind will always try to square antinomies. If people are already anxious, and can neither rationalize away or face squarely the cause of their anxiety, they will find something exterior to be anxious about, in order to achieve consonance. Thus the fear of future catastrophes is not anxiety-provoking at all but anxiety-justifying. What then really frightens us?

Certainly the economic and political-condition of the world cannot be reassuring, even for those who experience it as a purely national or personal malaise. Many may be heading downhill and it worries them. But let us focus on just one aspect of our present response to future catastrophe.

A sociologist, Charles E. Fritz of the National Academy of Sciences, specializes in disaster response. Contrary to the rusty canards about behavior, people act splendidly dur­ing a disaster or catastrophe, he says. With exceptions, of course, they don’t loot, flee the scene in panic, or become hysterical (as in the movies.) On the contrary, people pull together and quickly move toward the center of the trouble instead of away, and so on. Team spirit is such that they organize and rebuild fast, like Germany and Japan after World War II. There is, of course, psychological pleasure in such an effort. In Britain today there is a real nostalgia for the war, when Britons felt they had a collective purpose.

This sort of response is so univer­sal as to amount to human nature. It is different, however, before the disaster, because then the culture operates. People cling to their cherished routines, habits, and be­liefs. They won’t recognize what’s in store, even when the signs are man­ifest showing what Fritz calls “a tendency to interpret disaster clues within a framework of normal ex­pectations.” The expectation we cherish most and the habit we most blindly stick to, is the ability to consume. We practice consumption like circus animals trained to dance, and without consumption what would we do, strive for, be?

So, we do not prepare for the storm because we would have to change our habits, our goals. And that is too hard and too painful. We know we should change and so, we are fright­ened. For unlike catastrophes of the past, the new ones demand foresight and preparation.

Given the nature of the challenges and the likely shape of our response left to itself, the finale seems more or less inevitable. Plato, in “The Republic,” theorized that only philosopher-kings were fit to rule. We shall have not a philosopher, but an ecologist king, a scientist! He will tell us what to do, direct our activities, supervise our habits, punish us if we refuse to obey orders. Perhaps a quondam freedom of speech will survive, or some foofaraw about voting, but down the road lies tyran­ny, however benign.

And after that? Will the last man on Earth please turn off the lights? ♦

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 6, 2020