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Apocalypse now . . . and on budget

The apocalypse will be budgeted. That is our trajectory, anyway: The bureaucratization of disaster. That which cannot be stopped will still be crammed, heroically, onto a spreadsheet. We like to tell ourselves that we’re ready for the day when the eschatology hits the fan.

The remains of a burned home west of Highway 89 in Yarnell, Ariz. / Todd Tamcsin / Reuters

The remains of a burned home west of Highway 89 in Yarnell, Ariz. / Todd Tamcsin / Reuters

A week after 19 firefighters died in their emergency shelters in Arizona, and just days after aQuebec town was largely destroyed in an explosive train derailment, we’re collectively steeled for the next calamity. Death and destruction are carefully enumerated in the modern world. There were 18,200 weather catastrophes (or “loss events”) worldwide between 1980 and 2012, totaling $2.8 trillion in losses (in 2012 dollars), including $885 billion in insured losses, according to the reinsurance giant Munich Re. These disasters have killed 1,405,000 people. (Stalin, apocryphally: “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.”)

At any given moment you can look at a NASA Web site to see which asteroids have the potential to strike the Earth. There’s one called 2007 VK184, for example, that’s about 425 feet in diameter. It’s a minus-1.57 on the Palermo Scale and a 1 on the Torino Scale. What does that mean? It means that it’s very unlikely to hit us when it swings close in 2048, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. …

We have a sense of being constantly on the verge of disaster or in the midst of one. If there’s not a disaster in the news, wait a week. There are disasters that come with warnings, and those that appear from nowhere. Bulletin: On Friday, an engineer parked a train hauling crude oil on a hill above Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and went to a hotel for the night. For some reason, the air brakes failed. The unoccupied train rolled for miles, back into town. When it derailed, the explosion leveled much of the downtown, including a bar packed with late-night partyers, and killed at least 15 people, with dozens more reportedly missing. They never knew what hit them.


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