It's not just rubbernecking and fear-mongering. The most compelling works of disaster writing serve the critical function of contextualizing real risks.
They include horrific versions of the future and descriptions of catastrophes that have come to pass. These are stories that contain deep truths about what it means to survive, which is to say: what it means to be human.
Here is a small sampling of some of the most impressive works of writing and reporting about some of the worst natural disasters in human history—tales of both large scale calamities and personal peril, past and potential.
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“The Sixth Extinction?” New Yorker, 2009 / Elizabeth Kolbert
Of the many species that have existed on earth—estimates run as high as fifty billion—more than 99 percent have disappeared. In the light of this, it is sometimes joked that all of life today amounts to little more than a rounding error.
Records of the missing can be found everywhere in the world, often in forms that are difficult to overlook. And yet extinction has been a much contested concept. Throughout the 18th century, even as extraordinary fossils were being unearthed and put on exhibit, the prevailing view was that species were fixed, created by God for all eternity. If the bones of a strange creature were found, it must mean that that creature was out there somewhere.
Once a mass extinction occurs, it takes millions of years for life to recover, and when it does it generally has a new cast of characters; following the end-Cretaceous event, mammals rose up (or crept out) to replace the departed dinosaurs. In this way, mass extinctions, though missing from the original theory of evolution, have played a determining role in evolution’s course; as Richard Leakey has put it, such events “restructure the biosphere” and so “create the pattern of life.” It is now generally agreed among biologists that another mass extinction is under way. Though it’s difficult to put a precise figure on the losses, it is estimated that, if current trends continue, by the end of this century as many as half of earth’s species will be gone.
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