Natural Disasters?

Realizing that it had been a while since I posted, I had decided initially to write a post about my broader research today, but then the horrible tornadoes in Oklahoma happened, and I decided instead to share some of the reflections and conversations that my colleagues and I have been having over the last few weeks about natural disasters.

One of the RCC working themes this round is “Disasters.” I’m actually here under the “ethics” theme because of my interest in religious sources, but increasingly I have found myself writing and thinking about disasters as they appear in medieval sources, and so I gladly joined in when a colleague who is working on the history of two twentieth-century earthquakes suggested that those interested read some articles and chapters on the way “disaster” has been conceptualized by societies and by scholars (particularly historians) and that we then get together and talk about these responses. The result: by far one of the most stimulating discussions I’ve had here at the RCC—six of us met and just wrestled with these issues for over four hours, asking questions about how comparable disasters are, about how geography and climate does or does not matter, about who it is that determines if an event is a “disaster”, etc.  These are questions that I’ve asked my students to think about in my class on the Black Death, and that will be even more in the forefront this time, as I am planning on spending more time on the issue of comparative epidemics and disasters now that I will need to spend less time on the issue of “what was the plague.”

One of the ideas that we kept coming back to was the issue of “natural” disaster.  The idea that “there is no such thing as a natural disaster” is becoming widely circulated, both in academic discourse (especially the sociology of disaster) and in classrooms. By saying this, scholars, teachers, and activists hope to draw attention to the many ways that disasters, though often triggered by environmental forces, are experienced in ways that are connected to social structures, economic systems and inequities, concepts of value (what is worth protecting?), and intellectual and cultural frames of “normal” and “abnormal.”  I myself have often used this line in the classroom, for these very purposes. Environmental historians, too, always wrestle with issues of environmental determinism—we often don’t want to ascribe so much power to “nature” that the role of humans and human societal responses is undervalued, and so for a long time now this way of explaining the complexity of disaster has been appealing. However, as environmental scholars, our group kept coming back to the issue of whether or not we should begin to recover the role of nature in natural disasters. Should we begin to once again focus more on the geological, ecological, and climatological forces that are at play when disaster strikes?  Have we done enough work to put the human into the frame that now we can put nature back in again?

Do certain landscapes and places and cities and societies experience nature and natural disaster differently?  Does a monsoon system understand flooding differently than a steppe land? Do the people who live in hurricane zones normalize storms in ways similar to the way that extreme cold is normalized in Arctic societies, to where only extraordinary storms merit the label of disaster?  We kept coming back also to the question: What, if anything, is the difference between a natural risk and a natural disaster?

These discussions are also particularly timely for me as I am heading to China tomorrow for a conference on “Disasters Wet and Dry: Rivers, Floods, and Droughts in world history”. I spent much of the weekend reading the pre-circulated articles, and though I can’t discuss them specifically, I noticed some trends about discussions (both modern and historical) about these water-related disasters that paralleled some of the conversations we had in our informal group at the RCC. Mostly, my thoughts right now are circulating around the issue of river disasters. River flooding and drought is particularly tricky for disaster studies, because both are normal features of the water cycle, and both are common throughout the world. What are the “tipping points” that make one flood or drought routine and another a disaster? Are they human, like war or food supply chains or unpreparedness or excessive river engineering that creates flood risk, or are they natural, like unusual rainfall patterns or the ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) or atmospheric patterns or the coincidence of drought and animal disease?

As I prepare to head to what promises to be a fascinating and complex series of discussions, I keep thinking about Oklahoma, and about the immensity of the tragedy and loss that the communities are facing, about all the ways that our social and economic and political systems will influence response efforts, safety, recovery, and even news coverage and cultural response.

But I also keep thinking, we can’t lay the responsibility for the disaster occurring on those same forces. A  tendency in the modern anthropocene is to see every aspect (good and bad) about the world as influenced by us, caused by us, or controllable by us. We have to remember that the world is bigger and wilder and more arbitrary than we imagine or control. Nature acts, and sometimes it acts upon us rather than in response to us. There IS such thing as a natural disaster, and Oklahoma is dealing with one right now.