The End is Nigh, By Henrik Svensen

Reviewed,Jonathan Sale
Thursday 30 July 2009 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


After reading this "history of natural disasters", you may well be asked, like the horse that walks into the bar in the old joke, "Why the long face?" There is no good the barman urging, "Cheer up, it might never happen." It has already happened, many times. It happened in Indonesia in 1883, when Krakatoa went critical. Another "supervolcano" blew its top in Indonesia 71,000 years ago, practically wiping out our ancestors. Over one-third of whatever was crawling around on land 252 million years ago was obliterated by a Siberian supervolcano that covered an area 10 times the size of Norway with a six-kilometre topping of lava.

Faced with its catalogue of plagues, fires, earthquakes and tsunamis, one can only hope that The End Is Nigh proves an inaccurate title. But Henrik Svensen's fascinating book (fluently translated from the Swedish by John Irons) is more than a catalogue of catastrophes. When crops failed in Sweden a 1,000 years ago, the solution, tempting to us republicans, was a human sacrifice – of the king. Scapegoats whose sins were thought to have provoked God into laying waste the land have included Jews, Muslims, Catholics, gays, witches and, in the case of the Hurricane Katrina, abortion clinics.

Yet there may be some beneficial effects. The Black Death killed around 50 million Europeans, but for the survivors there was more land and work. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 led to new buildings on wooden piles to lessen future damage. This contrasted with the anti-earthquake precautions of the Inquisition, which consisted of an annual ceremony for the torture and execution of unbelievers.

Typically, the secretive China of Chairman Mao took a year to admit to the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan, the biggest ever devastation of a major city. Faced with the belief that the 1910 Halley's Comet would poison the Earth with cyanide in its tail, people sold each "anti-comet pills". The solution of the loopy Sacred Followers in Oklahoma was to sacrifice a virgin, but they failed. They probably couldn't find one.

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