After 9/11, catastrophe has become the dominant imaginary of the future. From avian flu to GM foods and from terrorism to climate change, the warning of catastrophic futures has altered the political arena of threat identification and risk management. Imagination of the future and catastrophic disruptions have become the main qualifiers of new bureaucratic rationalities, while the popular culture of disaster has been integrated into institutional strategies. In order to expose the political stakes of this ‘governmentalisation of catastrophe’, the paper unpacks responses to two catastrophic events in modernity: the Lisbon Earthquake in 1755 and the nuclear threat after the Second World War. Drawing on critical debates that took place at these two moments, it shows that catastrophes need not be engaged in terms of governing social and political order or restoring it. Rather, critical engagement with catastrophic futures has always started from the present and what is wrong with society as such.