How we deal with disasters

From 'Acts of God' to 'Acts of Nature' and 'Acts of Man' - humanity's reading of catastrophes has changed through the ages.

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

After the Asian tsunami, how can we make sense of such senseless events? A brief look at history suggests that our answer will depend on the prevailing beliefs of the time.

Major catastrophes and disasters often serve as historical markers. The phrase ‘after this event nothing will ever be the same again’ has been repeated after many major disasters. Frederick Francis Cook, chronicler of the 1871 fire that destroyed a large part of Chicago, wrote that ‘in the minds of Chicagoans the city’s past is demarcated from the present by the great fire of 1871’. After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, it became commonplace to hear politicians and commentators announce that ‘the world changed forever on 9/11’.

In similar vein, one American newspaper this week claimed that, ‘When historians write the final story of the tsunami that hit in the early twenty-first century, they will write about how the world changed’. Since Biblical times, disasters have been experienced as key defining moments. Biblical events such as Noah’s flood were interpreted in a similar way.

Disasters make fascinating stories. Though infrequent, they have a formidable impact on the imagination of the generations that follow. Russell Dynes, a leading American researcher of the history of disaster perception, has claimed that before modern times, events like earthquakes were interpreted as a ‘dramatic means of communication between gods and humans’. Great catastrophes served to underline the transient quality of human existence and the futility of all purely human ends and acted as a stimulus for religious contemplation. Even in today’s secular times, disasters are often invested with some hidden meaning.

Throughout the course of history, people’s explanations of what caused a disaster, what would be its likely impact on their lives and what meaning they should attach to it have gone through important modifications. As sociologist Lowell Juilliard Carr argued, a disaster is defined by human beings and not by nature. Writing in the 1930s, he noted that ‘not every windstorm, earth-tremor, or rush of water is a catastrophe’. If there are no major injuries, deaths or serious losses, Carr argued, ‘there is no disaster’. His definition of disaster as an event associated with the destruction of human life and with economic loss was shaped by the modernist imagination of his times.

Michael Kempe, in an article in the journal Environment and History, argued that in the Middle Ages, ‘solar eclipses and comets were seen as catastrophes, because they were interpreted as signs of divine anger against human sins, as were earthquakes and volcanic eruptions’. It was not so much the intensity of human suffering but the powerful signals sent by a major act of physical disruption that shaped the perception of a catastrophe.

According to Enrico Quarantelli, a leading figure in the field of disaster research, historically ideas about disasters have gone through three important phases. Traditionally, catastrophes were attributed to the supernatural. They were characterised as Acts of God, ‘with the implication that nothing could be done about their occurrence’. The rise of Enlightenment secularism led to an important shift in the way society conceptualised disasters. The development of science as the new source of knowledge altered people’s perception. ‘They were increasingly seen as Acts of Nature’, wrote Quarantelli.

More recently this view has been displaced by the idea that disasters resulted from the Acts of Men and Women. Today the finger of blame invariably points to human beings; governments, big business or careless operatives are held responsible. Floods are less likely to be associated with divine displeasure than with greedy property developers building on flood plains.

The changing historical perception of the meaning of disasters was never straightforward. Medieval ideas about disasters being God’s punishment were tested when everyone, even the virtuous, was afflicted. Environmental historian Christian Rohr, who studied people’s response to a major earthquake in Carinthia, Austria, in 1348, claimed there was ambiguity in how it was interpreted. He called into question the ‘supposed “medieval” equation of natural disaster and divine punishment’. He thought that many saw the earthquake as not necessarily the wrath of God but as an ‘exceptional and unexpected part of everyday life’.

Reactions to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 were even more variable. Russell Dynes has called this event ‘the first modern disaster’; traditional explanations of religious authorities were undermined by the growing influence of scientific thought. Voltaire’s powerful polemic, Candide, was written in part as a response to the earthquake and called into question the idea that it was an Act of God.

Despite the outbreak of a major philosophical controversy about the meaning of the Lisbon earthquake, serious research into the experience of disasters had to wait until the early twentieth century. Until the 1940s most accounts of disasters were descriptive, focusing on their gravity. Eyewitness accounts of high-profile disasters that captured the public imagination characterised the literature.

An example is the major outburst of activity after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, when many speeches, sermons, poems, songs and essays were published. For the historian of disasters, reports written by the Red Cross are of great interest. It was the first international organisation involved in disaster relief and sought to use the emerging social sciences to make sense of this experience.

Before the Second World War, the most significant research on the social impact of a disaster was Samuel Henry Prince’s study of the explosion in 1917 of a munitions ship in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This was a pioneering attempt to explore the effect of a catastrophe, in which over 2,000 died, on the individual and community. Further research was undertaken by the University of Chicago in the 1940s, providing an interesting picture of how people behave in a disaster.

Today, when society is concerned about terrorist violence, global warming and a range of potential technological disasters, it is useful to remind ourselves how communities in the past managed to deal with comparable episodes. Interestingly, from the Great Fire of London to Hiroshima, experience shows that communities often possess a remarkable capacity to rebuild their lives.

Prince’s study of the Halifax explosion emphasised the solidarity with which the community responded. Post-Second World War researchers also tended to challenge what they described as ‘disaster mythology’, which includes the assumptions that when disaster strikes, people panic and their communities experience a rise in antisocial behaviour.

Disaster research suggests that there is an increase in socially responsible behaviour in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe. Enrico Quarantelli observed in 1954 that the ‘frequency of panic has been over-exaggerated’ and is a ‘relatively uncommon phenomenon’.

The bombing of Hamburg in July 1943 is a good example. It killed between 30,000 and 45,000 people and left over 900,000 homeless. Yet there was no panic and in a short period of time the city managed to resurrect itself. Within five months it was back to 80 per cent of its pre-bombing industrial production levels.

After the dropping of the atomic bomb, the response of the people of Hiroshima was also astonishingly resilient. Although 75,000 people died out of a population of 245,000, within a few days essential services were restored, and after a week economic life was back in full swing. Studies carried out in London during the Blitz also showed that public morale remained relatively high and that communities showed remarkable resilience in adversity.

Since the 1980s the optimistic version of how humans respond to disasters has been questioned by a new wave of revisionist studies. Kai Erikson’s study of the Buffalo Creek disaster in 1976, when 125 people died after a mining dam collapsed, set the stage for more pessimistic assessments of the post-disaster experience. His book provided an account where the prevailing state of human vulnerability overwhelms any sense of community solidarity.

A study of the 1966 Aberfan disaster also illustrates this changing approach, and the new emphasis on human vulnerability rather than resilience. Aberfan was one of the most devastating tragedies in postwar Britain; 116 children and 28 adults died when a coaltip-slide engulfed a school. Observers were struck by the speed with which the community attempted a return to normality. A year later, Mary Essex, a psychologist from the University of Wales, noted that the surviving children seemed normal and adjusted.

By 2000, however, a widespread sense of human vulnerability had become a defining feature of our age, and the history of certain disasters was rewritten from this perspective. In October 2000, Iain McLean and Martin Johnes expressed doubt about earlier claims of resilience following the Aberfan disaster, arguing that ‘subsequent research does suggest that long-term effects would be likely at Aberfan’.

The absence of a consensus on the meaning and experience of a disaster represents an opportunity for a new debate. After the Asian tsunami some – including the Archbishop of Canterbury – have asked the old questions, such as ‘Where was God?’; others have sought to attach new meaning to this disaster, claiming that human intervention in the environment may have caused, or at least exacerbated the impact of the tidal wave.

In this confused climate, and at a time when we appear obsessed with cataclysmic climatic change and environmental and technological disasters, an historical investigation of the experience of past disasters could provide important insights into why we react as we do – and how we might seek to overcome catastrophe in the present.

Frank Furedi is author of Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)) and Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). Visit his website at

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Topics Politics


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