There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster. What?!?

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One thing guaranteed to cause eyes to widen and jaws to drop in a classroom setting is to tell your students that there’s no such thing as a “natural disaster.” I teach Environmental History at McGill University and Bishop’s University, and as Typhoon Roke was hitting Japan, I decided to bring up the cultural—rather than ecological—construct of natural disasters.

As someone who studies the global asbestos trade, I’m certainly not an expert on what could be considered “typical” natural disasters—hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and so on. However, the reason I brought Typhoon Roke into class discussion was because we were talking about William Cronon’s theories on the ways in which people and the natural environment have historically interacted, with special emphasis on his chapter in Uncommon Ground, “The Trouble With Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.”

While Cronon is also not the first place you may look to find information on the history of a hurricane or tornado, what he writes about the human place in nature is absolutely relevant to the question of natural disasters. In the business of Environmental History, scholars usually shy away from the term altogether, preferring to rely on phrases like, “extreme weather,” or “extreme events,” and while I think there is an important distinction in these alternate phrasings, when I told my students this, one of them simply raised her eyebrow and said, “Isn’t this just academics being petty over words?”

The answer is, of course, the greatest academic answer of all time: yes and no. Getting caught up in a debate over phrasing can definitely be counter-productive, but choosing your words wisely to describe certain events in history and in everyday life is important.

An event termed a “natural disaster” tells us a great deal more about the people and culture surrounding the event at the time rather than the natural systems of the region. A disaster is something unexpected, unusual, unpredictable, and perhaps, even a bit wrathful. Referring to an extreme event as such completely ignores the deep history of entire ecological systems and overlooks the agency and integration humans had, and continue to have within these systems. This is one of the reasons why the first chapter in so many Environmental History monographs contains an analysis of the pre-human environment: how did it come to look like this? When? Why? What are the ecological systems of this region and how do they contribute to the ability or inability for this place to sustain life? These things matter when doing good history, and they especially matter when thinking about extreme events and the human role and reaction in them.

Nobody would be surprised when discovering that it rained today in Vancouver. A coastal city nestled beside a mountain range along the Pacific? Of course there’ll be rain! However, why is there such shock when an earthquake, a tsunami, or a typhoon hits a small island located in an area of the world that is well-known to be a “ring of fire?” The tragic loss of human life is definitely a reason, yes, but how can stepping back from the term “natural disaster” help us better understand the ways in which humans interact with the natural world?

In Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, Mike Davis makes it clear that no matter what technology we use to try to change the natural environment in order to make it more habitable for human life, there is only so much we can do. It’s a David and Goliath situation, and more often than not, David’s slingshot misses its mark. The ecological systems of regions all over the world have been functioning more or less in this way for the majority of the Holocene Period, or the last 12,000 years, with the odd “mini-ice age” here and there accentuating the ways in which climate and the natural environment change. Seen all too often on 24-hour news channels or old episodes of Oprah, it’s the human reaction to this, the declaration that what is happening is a disaster and not a naturally-occurring extreme event, that’s new and unusual, and it makes humans and the natural world antagonists, which is simply a-historical.

As environmental historians, and as citizens of the world, we need to contextualize ecological systems in a way that involves humans, and this is where Cronon comes in. He writes that the continued idea of “nature” being something removed from human civilization, to be visited on occasion via mountain bike, climbing gear, or cross-country skis, is counterproductive to living with and understanding the systems of the natural world in order to live sustainably within them.

The biggest story coming out of Typhoon Roke was not the humans lives lost: instead, it was the threat that waste water at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, sitting in the open since the earthquake and tsunami hit the region in March 2011, could be washed into the ocean, which supplies much of the Japanese diet. In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond encourages us to question the choices we as a society make while showing us the ways in which civilizations have misunderstood their roles in the natural systems in which they live, choosing unsustainable ways of interacting with the environment around them, and collapsing.

I’m certainly not saying that Japan is heading towards a collapse, but I did like the way my students eventually began seeing the ecological systems occurring within these “natural disasters,” and the benefits that can come from a change in terminology. It’s more than just a petty academic argument over words: it’s an entirely different, and certainly more productive, angle at looking at the ways in which humans are real a part of the ecosystem and have a role to play within it that goes beyond helpless damsel in distress. With this change in perspective could come a change in the choices we as a society make. What’s more, changing the way we view extreme events may help us extract the intertwined causes of “disaster,” as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was disastrous for very different reasons than the 2011 earthquake in Japan. What role does global poverty play in ecological systems?

As environmental historians, we have a perspective on current events deeply rooted in the past, and the past matters. We need to get our noses out of our books every now and then, tip our toes out of the classroom, and fully realize what J.R. McNeill has hoped for us since his, “Drunks, Lampposts, and Environmental History” article in 2005: “the most urgent duty of environmental history is to abandon the shelter of ivory towers for the blood-spattered arena of public discourse and the dangerous task of infiltrating the corridors of power.” Spread the word. I promise you it won’t be a disaster.

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I am an Associate Professor in the Department of History at McMaster University m. My research interests are in transnational environmental health and contamination, and I always seek to blend historical research with public engagement. I’m currently a Co-Investigator on the Mining Danger SSHRC Insight Grant, while also developing an augmented natures project. My monograph, A Town Called Asbestos: Environmental Change, Health, and Resilience in a Resource Community was published by UBC Press in 2016.

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