Seven people whose warnings of catastrophe should be taken seriously

There is no lack of dire predictions about the future. Hundreds of dystopian novels, especially the flood of books in that genre for young adults, have portrayed innumerable variations on future catastrophes. I became so intrigued about all this attention to a possible dystopian future that I wrote a book about it. It’s called Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction. Now I’ve found someone far better positioned to assess the likelihood that some of those dystopian scenarios might come to pass: Richard A. Clarke. In collaboration with his colleague R. P. Eddy, the former U.S. counterterrorism czar under three presidents has written Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes. This is a deadly serious inquiry into the reality underlying predictions of a killer pandemic, sudden massive sea rise, a devastating meteor strike, runaway artificial intelligence, and other chilling possibilities.

Accurate predictions of a dystopian future

In Warnings, Clarke and Eddy dive deeply into the expert predictions of scientists, engineers, and journalists who have stuck their necks out, often against enormous resistance, to warn the U.S. cassandra about seemingly unthinkable possibilities. They call these stubborn and courageous individuals Cassandras (after the princess of Troy in Greek mythology whose accurate predictions of disaster were forever doomed to be ignored). However, in every case, Clarke and Eddy’s Cassandras have been anything but ignored — although some have labored for decades to be heard.

Warnings is not simply a study of the brave people who have risked their careers to make exceedingly unpopular predictions based on their expertise. The authors have undertaken to analyze the factors common to most Cassandras, deriving a “Cassandra Coefficient” based on four critical components: the character of the threat or risk itself and how it is received; the expertise and personality of the would-be Cassandras; the extent and character of resistance from the Cassandra’s critics; and the receptiveness of the decision makers they hope to influence.

Eight “Cassandras” who were ignored

In the book’s first part, “Missed Warnings,” Clarke and Eddy relate the stories of eight Cassandras whose predictions were ignored. Included are the military analyst who predicted Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in time for it to have been prevented; the meteorologist who warned about the certainty of massive hurricane damage to New Orleans before Katrina; the seismologist who is even today pleading with authorities to mitigate the damage of the catastrophic earthquake that is certain to strike the U.S. Northwest; and others. It’s a sobering account.

Will these later Cassandras be ignored, too?

The second part of the book, “Current Warnings,” portrays the efforts of seven people who today are clamoring to be heard about the danger of such potential catastrophes as a massive meteor strike, a devastating pandemic, and runaway genetic engineering, among others. Each is a grim cautionary tale. In each chapter, the authors report on their interviews with the experts they portray as Cassandras. If you’re prone to worry, these accounts may keep you up at night. Every one of the threats related in these chapters has the potential to yield a dystopian future.

Richard A. Clarke served as counterterrorism czar under Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Following his departure from the White House in 2003, he gained widespread attention nationally with his harsh criticism of the Bush Administration’s response to 9/11. He is the author of five nonfiction books and four novels.