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Global Catastrophic Risks Conference - Abstracts

Culture and the Credibility of Catastrophe

Professor Steve Rayner

Prophesies of doom and the anticipation of cataclysmic events have been a perennial feature of human discourse in both oral and written traditions. Characteristically they involve a super- or extra-human force—gods, ancestors, or nature—which will intervene in human affairs. They also embody strong moral or ethical imperatives, either to reform current social behaviour so that catastrophe can be averted, or to establish a more ideal social order once the present dispensation has been swept away.

Although contemporary preoccupations with catastrophe claim to have a strong scientific basis, they continue to embody these traditional characteristics. Drawing on medieval millenarianism, 20th Century Melanesian cargo cults, ultra-left political groups and contemporary environmental discourses, this paper explores the social conditions that create a more or less fertile environment for the credibility of catastrophic predictions and the deployment of such predictions in contemporary policy discourse.