Armageddon seems to be just a payday away
Hal Lindsey's book The Late Great Planet Earth sold more than 10 million copies. The semidocumentary movie made from it, with Narrator Orson Welles rumbling warnings that the world may be coming to an end, is currently among the top ten moneymakers out of Hollywood. Why the success of an apocalyptic message? "Storm warnings, portents, hints of catastrophe haunt our times," says Historian Christopher Lasch. "Impending disaster has become an everyday concern."
Indeed, Armageddon is something of a growth industry. In an avalanche of recent books, polar caps melt, a new ice age begins, the oceans disappear, the ozone level is destroyed, terrorists touch off a nuclear war, astronauts bring back a deadly Andromeda Strain. Destruction may also come from a maddened god (Gore Vidal's Kalki). Or in an unending snowstorm (George Stone's Blizzard). Or from the scorching "greenhouse effect" of too much CO2 in the atmosphere (Arthur Herzog's Heat). Or through global political disintegration (The Third World War: August 1985 by a group of English officers and writers). Or even by a reversal of the earth's magnetic fields (Fred Warshofsky in Doomsday).
For Hollywood too, calamity pays. From Earthquake to The Towering Inferno and The Last Wave disaster flicks have been the most profitable genre of the 1970s. Nor is the deluge tapering off. Coming attractions include: Meteor and The Day the World Ended (by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tidal waves).
One explanation for this disastermania: it is merely a harmless byproduct of popular entertainment. Explains Science Writer Isaac Asimov: "Hollywood just happens to be very good at special effects, primarily destructive effects." Indeed, in a forthcoming book, A Choice of Catastrophes, the polymath popularizer seeks to soothe anxieties about global disaster. Says Asimov: "All the scenarios are either very low in probability, or very distant in the future."
Another view holds science writers themselves responsible for all the doom and gloom: because scientists write only for one another, usually in terms all but incomprehensible to lay people, word of new theories and breakthroughs is sometimes passed on to the public in overly dramatic and exaggerated form. Still, the most deadpan writing cannot disguise the drama of some of science's recent discoveries. The Big Bang theory of the universe, for example, has quite correctly convinced much of the public that the cosmos is unimaginably terrifying and violent. In the light of such findings, even theories that have been repudiated by the scientific community, like those of former
Psychiatrist Immanuel Velikovsky, continue to have a cultlike following. In his original 1950 book, Worlds in Collision, and its popular successors, Velikovsky argued that catastrophe is the central agent in evolution. Says Warshofsky, himself a Velikovsky buff: "Catastrophe is an essential force in nature, not aberrational, but inevitable."