- Waiting for the End of the World: Catastrophe and the Populist Myth of History
The media attention paid to the Shoemaker-Levy comet—from tabloids to the Internet—attests both to a popular fascination with the idea of catastrophe and to a growing interest among scientists themselves in the role played by exceptional events and random agents in natural history. Of course, the most notorious product of this neocatastrophism is the story paleontologists now tell about the fate of the dinosaurs; and, indeed, the spectacular satellite images of impacts on Jupiter were received as evidence of the ecological consequences a similar event would have—or already has had—on earth.
Even before the Shoemaker-Levy comet made its headlines, Congress had funded the Conference on Near-Earth Asteroids after learning that an asteroid had crossed the earth’s orbit in 1989, missing our planet by a mere six hours. The scientists who assembled in San Diego in 1991 were asked to weigh the risks of future collisions and to consider the feasibility of developing a “cosmic insurance policy.” 1 As the conferees envisioned scenarios in which earth-bound bodies were nudged aside by nuclear warheads, the meeting played in the popular press as a call for continuing the Strategic Defense Initiative despite the Cold War’s demise. The nation, it seemed, must rearm to face the threat of total annihilation at the hands of a relentless, inhuman foe. In this popular fantasy, which has been revived by images of the assault on Jupiter, technology promises to [End Page 391] preserve and protect both nature and civilization from a disruptive, outside force.
At the same time, scientists concerned about the long-term consequences of nuclear war used new theories of mass extinctions to develop the notion of a “nuclear winter.” Paleontologists argued that a cometary impact sixty million years ago raised a global cloud of dust that cut off photosynthesis and drastically altered the game of survival, and this ecological disaster became a warning that human technology could catastrophically alter our environment as the comet itself became a metaphor for the bomb. The very technologies the San Diego conferees hoped to use against future space invaders seemed to these scientists like a sort of extraterrestrial presence hostile to nature. In both cases, while catastrophic events are seen as recurring events, they are treated as threats either to genuine social progress or to the delicate balance of life on earth.
The following pages will focus on a different vision of the role that catastrophes have played in natural and cultural history. Published more than a century ago, Ignatius Donnelly’s Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883) seems in some ways to anticipate current anxieties and fantasies by arguing that comets have periodically collided with the earth, changing the climate and conditions under which the history of life has unfolded. According to Donnelly, the most recent impact caused the Ice Ages and destroyed an advanced civilization, and the memories of this trauma are kept alive by myths of fire-breathing dragons or chariots in the sky. 2 Ragnarok’s arguments had little influence on contemporary science, but they did play a significant role in the debate over America’s technological development in the postbellum decades. Donnelly was to be one of the leading figures in the Populist movement during the 1890s, and in Ragnarok he developed a theory of history that supported agrarian criticisms of industrialization by attacking the emerging consensus that technological development was subject to the same law of gradual, unilinear progress that governed geohistory and biological evolution. Donnelly challenged this “scientific” myth of progress neither by giving up on technological development altogether nor by distinguishing social from natural history; rather, he used myths of the comet to argue that the course of both natural and cultural evolution is marked by critical episodes where real change takes place rapidly and violently.
Ragnarok was a sequel to Donnelly’s more popular treatise Atlantis: [End Page 392] The Antediluvian World (1882), which had used cultural homologies between ancient Meso-American and Mediterranean civilizations to argue that Plato’s lost continent had indeed existed somewhere between the two...