Worst Cases: Inquiries Into Terror, Calamity, and Imagination

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Al Qaeda detonates a nuclear weapon in Times Square during rush hour, wiping out half of Manhattan and killing 500,000 people. A virulent strain of bird flu jumps to humans in Thailand, sweeps across Asia, and claims more than fifty million lives. A single freight car of chlorine derails on the outskirts of Los Angeles, spilling its contents and killing seven million. An asteroid ten kilometers wide slams into the Atlantic Ocean, unleashing a tsunami that renders life on the planet as we know it extinct.

We consider the few who live in fear of such scenarios to be alarmist or even paranoid. But Worst Cases shows that such individuals—like Cassandra foreseeing the fall of Troy—are more reasonable and prescient than you might think. In this book, Lee Clarke surveys the full range of possible catastrophes that animate and dominate the popular imagination, from toxic spills and terrorism to plane crashes and pandemics. Along the way, he explores how the ubiquity of worst cases in everyday life has rendered them ordinary and mundane: very real threats like a killer flu or an American Hiroshima have become so common that they have lost their ability to shock us. Fear and dread, Clarke argues, have actually become too rare: only when the public has more substantial information and more credible warnings will it take worst cases as seriously as it should.

A timely and necessary look into how we think about the unthinkable, Worst Cases will be must reading for anyone attuned to our current climate of threat and fear.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226108599
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2005
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 200
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Lee Clarke is a sociologist at Rutgers University. He is the author of Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster, published by the University of Chicago Press, and Acceptable Risk? Making Decisions in a Toxic Environment. He is also the editor of Terrorism and Disaster: New Threats, New Ideas.
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Read an Excerpt


By LEE CLARKE The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2006
The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-10859-9


It was superlative, the most magnificent, most celebrated, most luxurious flying machine ever built. Never mind the Nazi swastika on the tail fin. The Hindenburg was a technological marvel, the best of the best, a testament to humanity's determination and skill in conquering nature. Radio announcer Herb Morrison was rightly in awe as he described the vessel's arrival in Lakehurst, New Jersey. It was May 6, 1937:

Well, here it comes, ladies and gentlemen. We're out now, outside of the hangar, and what a great sight it is.... It's coming down out of the sky pointed directly towards us and toward the mooring mast. The mighty diesel motors just roared, the propellers biting into the air and throwing it back into a galelike whirlpool. No wonder this great floating palace can travel through the air at such a speed, with these powerful motors behind it....

The ship is riding majestically toward us, like some great feather.... It's practically standing still now. They've dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship and they've been taken ahold of down on the field by a number of men. It's starting to rain again. The rain had slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it, uh, just enough to keep it from ...

Then it happens.

It burst into flames. It's burst into flames and it's falling, it's crashing.... Get out of the way, get out of the way. Get this Charlie, get this Charlie.

It's fire and it's crashing. It's crashing terrible. Oh my, get out of the way, please. It's burning, bursting into flames. And it's falling on the mooring mast and all the folks. This is terrible, this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world.... Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers screaming around here.... I can't talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest, it's just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage, and everybody can't hardly breathe.... I'm going to step inside where I cannot see it.

Morrison's horror is palpable. His voice is smooth and admiring as the Nazi dirigible-a behemoth almost as long as the Titanic-floats down. But then in a flash the airship catches fire. Morrison is shocked, and his voice starts to crack, giving us some glimpse into the terror that must have touched the souls of the hundreds of spectators. "This is one of the worst catastrophes in the world," says Morrison, and it really does look and sound like one. It must have felt, and smelled, like doomsday.

* * *

The succession of plagues that started with what we call the Black Death emerged in Europe in 1347 and within four years had wiped out two-thirds of the populations of many cities. People were healthy one day and dead the next. The Italian author Boccaccio wrote in the Decameron that people would have "breakfast in the morning with their relatives, companions, or friends, and ... dinner that evening in another world with their ancestors!" The plagues continued for three hundred years, claiming nearly one-third of the European population. The effects were catastrophic. Economies collapsed. Millenarian and penitential doctrines, such as that of the flagellants, arose amid the death and disease, as people sought meaning in a world that suddenly had none. Anti-Semitism predictably increased. Family members were set against one another. Said Agnolo di Tura del Grassi, a fourteenth-century chronicler, "Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another, for the plague seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. And no one could be found to bury the dead, for money or friendship." Death and misery became so commonplace as to be normal. People lost hope. It may well have been that the living envied the dead.

On June 30, 1908, at about 7:00 in the morning a meteorite (most likely-scientists still aren't sure) exploded some three to five miles over Siberia, near the Tunguska River. The object was probably 150 to 250 feet in diameter. Trees within a nine-mile radius were incinerated; those within twenty-five miles were flattened. The Tunguska Event, as astronomers call it, was fifteen times as powerful as the nuclear weapon that destroyed Hiroshima. Shock waves from Tunguska circled the globe twice. If an object of similar size exploded five miles over Manhattan millions of people would be incinerated. Survivors would say it was the worst disaster that ever happened. They would call it a worst case.

* * *

It can be comforting to regard events like these as things of the past and people who talk about such things as ongoing threats as alarmist, extremist, or even crazy. Nowadays, we have science to protect us, technology to serve us, and experts to predict the paths that calamity might take.We understand better than ever how probability works; thinking in terms of probabilities is a hallmark of the modern scientific mind. In some ways science and technology do make us safer. We live longer, and far more comfortable, lives than people did a hundred years ago. This is especially true of people in rich countries. Certainly the rise of probabilism as a way of thinking about the future-and especially any dangers the future may behold-benefits us in countless ways.

But neither the passage of time nor accumulated riches nor fancier technology nor greater expertise protect us from worst cases. Not even the magic of probabilistic thinking can save us. In fact, we humans are making some kinds of worst cases more likely and potentially more devastating. Huge airliners, rather than hydrogen-filled dirigibles, now fall out of the sky, killing hundreds in a flash. The frightening thing about the 2003 outbreak of SARS-severe acute respiratory syndrome-was less its lethality (fewer than 10 percent of those infected died) than the speed of its global transmission. Other viruses, as deadly as Ebola and as fast moving as the common cold, likewise have the potential to circle the globe, on the planes that don't crash, in twenty-four hours. One might kill millions of people before doctors even knew what was happening. NASA is tracking hundreds of NEOs-near earth objects-including an asteroid called XF11. In 1997 some highly reputable scientists started to worry that XF11 might come dangerously close to earth sometime in the next thirty years. With a diameter of about a mile, XF11 could, if it hit us, be a planet killer, releasing as much as a million megatons of energy. We now know that we're safe from XF11. But that's no reason to think we're safe from NEOs. It's only a matter of time, so a reasonable person might conclude that we should be afraid.

Thinking about worst cases may seem neurotic, but it should be seen as normal. It starts early. A child wants to learn to ride a bicycle but is afraid. "What's the worst that can happen?" her parent intones, failing to understand that the child imagines not just the physical danger of failure but also the social risk of embarrassment. Later, as a teenager, she drives with abandon, operating on the unarticulated presumption that the worst "can't happen to me." And it doesn't. Worst cases are rare, she believes. She survives to become CEO of a major industrial concern, for which she must consider "worst case scenarios" and then decide whether to cover them up. When an accident causes half of her plant to explode, killing two hundred workers and contaminating two neighboring towns, the carnage exceeds everyone's worst nightmares. The lead paragraph in the paper begins, "No one could have planned for it. It was the worst industrial accident in 60 years."

Worst cases happen frequently. For that simple reason thinking about worst cases is normal at all societal levels-individual, group, organizational, national. Private industry and government increasingly use worst case analyses in making decisions. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency, following a mandate from the Clean Air Act, started a process in 1996 that requires industrial facilities that hold or produce toxic chemicals to create "worst case scenarios." These scenarios, in one form or another, will be made available to local citizens. This is unprecedented. At the very least, the program itself is a crude indicator of how important such scenarios are becoming in our lives.

As a society we tend to adopt a reactive posture toward worst cases. The government has, for example, tried to create some policies that work as prophylactics against the worst fiscal year, the spread of AIDS, the deadliest terrorist attack, and the like. While corporations do sometimes paralyze themselves worrying about worst case lawsuits and individuals do buy life insurance policies, mostly we worry about worst cases when they're upon us. Especially regarding disasters. David King is the director of the Centre for Disaster Studies at James Cook University in Australia. His research shows that after cyclones and floods there are always wonderful stories of heroism and neighbors helping each other in situations of great danger. King points out, however, that such acts wouldn't be necessary in the first place if people paid more attention to worst case possibilities. We should all take his advice. In spite of all the ways our lives are better than those of our ancestors, we're also more vulnerable to large-scale disasters.

Studying worst cases, and ideas about worst cases, can teach us about a lot more than just disasters. It can teach us, generally, about how society works. It can afford a glimpse into human nature. For to reflect upon worst cases is to reflect upon the imagination. It's natural to think of "the imagination" as something outside of the influences of society. The death penalty or fashion are obviously open to social and political influences. But the imagination? It seems different somehow. In fact it isn't. What we imagine and how we imagine it are very much open to society's influences, some of which I explore in this book.

Most people seem to have spent at least some time imagining the worst thing that could happen to them. Those who dwell on those imaginings are called paranoid. But having the thoughts, and controlling them or perhaps even working them into a plan, is considered intelligent and wise. American intelligence agencies, to take a counterexample, have been criticized for being caught off-guard by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. They failed to consider and prepare for a devastating worst case.

Conceptions of the worst also vary by culture and subculture; each group provides a different set of images for its members to use in imagining the superlatively bad. Those are the things that this book is about. We will weave into and out of people's ideas about horror, and we will delve into some truly horrifying events.

I have several messages.

1. Worst case thinking is very different from the modern approach to risk. The modern approach is based on probabilistic thinking-what's the likelihood that the nuclear plant will melt down?-and is often used to justify dangerous systems. Worst case thinking is possibilistic thinking-what happens if the nuclear plant has a really bad day?-and can be more progressive.

2. Big disasters are something we're more prone to as a society, and therefore they are something we ought to spend more resources preparing for. However, such preparations can actually put us at greater risk if they are implemented incorrectly.

3. Disasters aren't special. They are as normal as love, joy, triumph, and misery. Looking at disasters as normal is both interesting and practical.


Doom is everywhere. Worst cases, and worst case thinking, cross-cut society. This is not entirely a bad thing. Individuals do worst case analysis whenever they buy health or life insurance. People who buy life insurance, showing generosity toward their heirs, are betting that they will die. If people weren't worst case thinkers the insurance industry would be in a lot of trouble, as would a great many heirs. At the community level, city governments pass laws that limit the times and speeds that toxic trains can pass through town. In doing so, they are acting on their assessments of the worst consequences should a train car fall over in a populated area, releasing dangerous gases or chemicals. Organizations, especially in the United States, are increasingly consumed with worst case analysis. One reason for corporate hysteria over lawsuits in the United States is fear of a worst case financial judgment against them. Even entire countries have worst case worries. After 9/11 politicians fostered in Americans the idea that terrorist threats were lurking behind every corner.

Before getting to any of that, though, we really ought to see if we can figure out what a worst case is.

That worst case thinking happens over such a broad swath of society raises the question of the dimensions of worst cases. Are there characteristics that worst cases have in common? In one sense this question doesn't make much sense. That's because trying to divine common dimensions of something assumes that there are enough particular instances of it to constitute a category, a type of event. But we usually think of failures and catastrophes as rare, if not unique, and as striking randomly and without warning. If so, then it makes little sense to speak of patterns and common dimensions.

No one would have predicted that a tree would fall on top of a moving car, killing a minister, his wife, and two children in Indiana. The sheriff who investigated the crash said that the "chances of that tree falling at the time they were directly underneath it are astronomical." I'm sure he meant extremely tiny. Perhaps equally unlikely is that a third child survived the crash. That case was a lot like the one of a Pennsylvania woman accidentally killed by a hunter's bullet. That in itself is not so surprising-people are killed in hunting accidents all the time. But this woman was in her house. The bullet traveled through a window, a door, and a wall and hit her in the neck as she was standing in her bedroom. A game commissioner was probably underestimating when he said that the "odds of [a bullet] coming through the woods, not hitting a tree, going through all that material in the house and hitting a person is ... million-to-one odds." Then there was the case of the woman who tripped while trying to unlock the door to her house with a key that was strung around her neck on a strap. She fell, the strap caught on the door handle, and she strangled to death. That was like the poor Long Island chap who bled to death after falling on the shards of his broken coffee cup. I mean here just to give some examples of the bizarre character of individual-level worst cases. These people likely never anticipated the scenarios in which they died, but, alas, there are many others who live with worst case thinking all the time-people with phobias, inmates on death row, and those who find themselves in the grip of suicidal depression.

At other levels of society, too, worst cases can be sudden or chronic. Toms River, New Jersey, is a community that's permeated by a mood of gloom and doom, and with good reason. Toms River has two Superfund sites, places that the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed among the worst polluted places in the country. There are about twelve hundred such sites throughout the United States. A lot of children in Toms River suffer from brain cancer, spinal melanoma, neural blastoma, or leukemia, afflictions that we don't normally think children will get. In Toms River, homes and communities are now places of pain and despair rather than the safe havens they should be. How else would people respond when, as one mother put it, you "have a child with leukemia living two houses down from a child with a tumor, drinking the same water and breathing the same air"?

Compare that to what happened when a train carrying skiers caught fire in a tunnel inside an Austrian mountain. There was, apparently, a faulty radiator in the driver's cab. That wouldn't have been enough to cause a fire, but a leaky hydraulic cable dripped combustible fluid onto the radiator. The resulting fire led to the failure of the hydraulic system; as the hydraulic pressure dropped the brakes engaged, stopping the train in its tracks. The passengers could still have survived, but the train had no emergency exits and only the driver could control the doors. The skiers were trapped inside the train, which was trapped inside the tunnel. Emergency personnel couldn't even get to the wreckage for twenty-four hours. It's hard to imagine worse conditions for survival. One hundred and fifty-five people died; a mere dozen survived. Reflecting sentiments of the local community, a reporter called it "a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions." A political official said, "It is one of the darkest and hardest days for Salzburg that we have ever seen." An official from the train company said, "The idea that a fire could break out in the tunnel was considered to be something unimaginable." Worst cases are like that.


Excerpted from WORST CASES by LEE CLARKE Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

1 Worst Cases: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid
2 The Sky Could Be Falling: Globally Relevant Disasters and the Perils of Probabilism
3 What's the Worst That Can Happen?
4 Power, Politics, and Panic in Worst Cases
5 Silver Linings: The Good from the Worst
6 Living and Dying in Worst Case Worlds
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