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Worst Cases

Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination

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. 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.

Read an interview with the author.

326 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2005

Earth Sciences: Environment

Economics and Business: Business--Business Economics and Management Studies, Health Economics

Media Studies

Political Science: Public Policy

Psychology: Social Psychology

Sociology: Collective Behavior, Mass Communication, General Sociology, Social Institutions


"The practical need for improvisation at all levels of societal response is unquestionable, particularly for major disasters, and Clarke’s book provides a stimulus for the basic and applied studies that are needed."

American Journal of Sociology

“Clarke’s book… is even more timely in 2021 than it was when first published. Clarke wants ordinary citizens and policymakers to pay more attention to potential catastrophic events: events improbable, but still possible, with consequences so severe that we ignore them at our peril.”

First Things

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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