The idea that vast catastrophes have swept the earth in the distant past can be found in many of the ancient mythologies and philosophical traditions of the world. Plato’s famous dialogue Timaeus speaks for traditional lore worldwide when it comments,
There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable lesser causes. (Plato 1961, p. 1157)
Despite this, the theme of earth changes – past or future – played a very small role in occult traditions and secret society teachings until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Most people in the western world before that time accepted the historical reality of the story of Noah in the Book of Genesis, and references to great floods and the changing of the earth’s landscape usually referred back to that belief. The nineteenth century, however, saw nearly all geologists accept the theory of uniformitarianism, which rejected the idea of global catastrophes and argued that the earth’s surface had been shaped by the same slow processes of mountain building, volcanism, erosion, and deposition that can be seen in the present-day world.
Two bestselling books by Irish-American author and politician Ignatius Donnelly (1831–1901) reintroduced the concept of catastrophic earth changes to popular culture. His Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882) argued that the lost continent of Atlantis had actually existed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, while his Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883) proposed that the Ice Ages had been caused by a collision between the earth and a giant comet. His theories about Atlantis helped inspire Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–91), the founder of the Theosophical Society; Blavatsky’s second major book, The Secret Doctrine (1888), put Atlantis at center stage of a visionary prehistory of the earth. For good measure, Blavatsky added the lost continents of the Imperishable Sacred Land, Hyperborea, and Lemuria to her system; all but the first, she claimed, had been destroyed by vast cataclysms that completely changed the distribution of land and water on the earth’s surface.
The immense popularity of Theosophy during the century from 1875 to 1975 guaranteed these ideas a privileged place in the occult societies and alternative speculations of the twentieth century. Another crucial role was played by American clairvoyant Edgar Cayce (1877–1945), whose utterings in trance included a great deal of material about Atlantis. Cayce seems to have introduced the idea that another round of catastrophic earth changes was in the offing; he predicted that Atlantis would surface in 1968 or 1969, as part of a series of catastrophes that would plunge the western half of North America beneath the waves by 1998.
Long before these prophecies disproved themselves, the idea of an imminent wave of earth changes had spread throughout alternative circles, especially but not only in America. The Ascended Masters teachings, a diffuse but widespread American occult movement, proved a particularly receptive audience for earth-changes theories, and the New Age movement provided another venue for these ideas. As these currents spread, and the rejected knowledge industry became a major influence on popular culture, the idea that the world was approaching a series of vast geological catastrophes became common throughout the world.
These trends drew strength from the collapse of strict uniformitarianism in the earth sciences, beginning in the 1970s. Two major changes in scientific opinion heralded this shift. The first was the discovery of evidence suggesting that the great wave of extinctions at the end of the Cretaceous period some 70 million years ago, at the end of the age of the dinosaurs, was caused by a collision between the earth and a large asteroid. The second was the realization that much of northwest North America had been reshaped at the end of the Ice Ages by a series of immense floods of glacial meltwater let loose by the repeated breaching of ice dams in the area of modern Montana. Both showed that large-scale catastrophes had happened in the earth’s past, and thus provided credibility to the idea that others might occur in the future.
The emergence of the “new catastrophism,” as it has been called, resulted in a great deal of reexamination of the earth’s past and a renewed willingness on the part of historians to consider the impact of climate changes, volcanic eruptions, and similar events on the human past. It also lent additional force to the warnings by environmental scientists that climate change driven by human maltreatment of the global environment might cause massive disruptions to industrial society in the relatively near future. Inevitably, though, it also provided ammunition for visionaries of various kinds who claimed advance knowledge of less credible catastrophes. The much-ballyhooed Y2K problem – the anticipated failure of computer systems worldwide to handle the transition from 1999 to 2000 – was only the largest of many false alarms to grab headlines in the western world, and divert attention from less colorful but more likely threats to the survival of industrial society.
As global temperatures rise into un-precedented territory in the early years of the twenty-first century, the possibility of widespread earth changes can hardly be dismissed. To name only one possibility, the breakup of the West Antarctic ice sheet – a process that some scientists believe has already begun – would raise sea levels 16 to 20 feet (5 to 6 meters) worldwide, drowning more than a hundred major cities. Still, such possibilities need to be assessed carefully in the light of known fact and physical possibility, and the often inaccurate claims of popular literature on such subjects may not be the best guide in these challenging times.