Kelman, I. 2010. Natural Disasters Do Not Exist (Natural Hazards Do Not Exist Either) Version 3, 9 July 2010 (Version 1 was 26 July 2007). Downloaded from
This document has only text in order to reduce the file size, thereby reducing download time.
Using the work of others’ over past decades, this document explains why the term “natural disaster” is a misnomer.
Do Natural Disasters Exist? 1
Threats from Space: An Exception? 2
Do Natural Hazards Exist? 3
Conclusions: Re-visiting Gamma-Ray Flares 3
Do Natural Disasters Exist?
The term “natural disaster” is often used to refer to a disaster which involves an event originating in the environment. The term has led to connotations that the disaster is caused by nature or that these disasters are the natural state of affairs. In many belief systems, including Western thought, deities often cause “natural disasters” to punish humanity or to assert power.
On 1 November 1755, Lisbon, Portugal was devastated by an earthquake and a tsunami. Rousseau reacted by questioning the standard view of disaster as being natural or deific. In a letter to Voltaire, Rousseau (1756) noted that nature did not build the houses which collapsed and suggested that Lisbon’s high population density contributed to the toll. He also asserted that unnecessary casualties resulted from people’s inappropriate behaviour following the initial shaking and that an earthquake occurring in wilderness would not be important to society.
Almost two centuries later, Gilbert White (1942/1945) viewed flood disasters from the perspective of people’s, rather than nature’s, behaviour. He proposed a range of “adjustments” to human behaviour to be adopted for reducing flood damage, going beyond the standard governmental approach of seeking to control the water. Three decades later, Ball (1975) described “The myth of the natural disaster” followed by O’Keefe et al. (1976) detailing “Taking the ‘naturalness’ out of natural disasters”. They extended the human behaviour discussion to all “natural disasters”, identifying the cause of the observed increase in disasters as “the growing vulnerability of the population to extreme physical events”, not as changes in nature. Tiranti (1977) then referred to “The Un-natural Disasters”.
The focus on human actions, behaviour, decisions, and values leading to vulnerabilities which cause disasters, with the potential implication that disasters are never “natural”, is now embedded in the disaster literature (e.g. Hewitt, 1997; Lewis, 1999; Mileti et al., 1999; Oliver-Smith, 1986; Steinberg, 2000; Wisner et al., 2004). Smith (2005) summarizes: “It is generally accepted among environmental geographers that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In every phase and aspect of a disaster—causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction—the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus”.
Practitioners also accept the notion that human input exists to all disasters. Abramovitz’ (2001) report “Unnatural Disasters” describes the factors which make disasters with environmental phenomena unnatural: “undermining the health and resilience of nature, putting ourselves in harm’s way, and delaying mitigation measures”. Turcios (2001) asserts “Natural disasters do not exist; they are socially constructed”. UNISDR (2002) notes that “Strictly speaking, there are no such things as natural disasters” while UNISDR’s (2007) terminology of basic disaster risk reduction terms does not include “natural disaster”.
The argument is that natural disasters do not exist because all disasters require human input. Nature sometimes provides input through a normal and necessary environmental event, such as a flood or volcanic eruption, but human decisions have put people and property in harm’s way without adequate measures to deal with the environment. The conclusion is that those human decisions are the root causes of disasters, not the environmental phenomena.
They are not “natural disasters”, but are social constructions.
The “no” perspective explains that any location in the universe has vulnerability to such objects and that humanity did not have a choice in evolving on Earth. The “yes” perspective contends that humanity has the ability to monitor for potential threats in order to provide enough lead-time to act to avert calamity, namely by deflecting the object’s trajectory or by breaking it up. Search efforts include the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research program (Stokes et al., 2000) and the Japanese Spaceguard Association (Isobe, 2000) which became operational soon after. Meanwhile, Cellino et al. (2006) and Price and Egan (2001) describe other monitoring possibilities which have not yet been implemented. Carusi et al. (2005) and Peter et al. (2004) discuss the feasibility of different options for taking action against threats.
Monitoring deep enough into space in all directions to provide enough lead-time for successful action, irrespective of the object’s size, would be costly. The “yes” perspective contends that humanity makes that choice not to expend the required resources. The rich amongst us have the resources to do so, yet they choose not to. The USA, for example, spent over US$1 trillion on military action in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. Without judging whether or not such expenditure and such action were appropriate, it illustrates that the resources for deep space monitoring exist, but the active choice by the minority with the wealth is to use those resources for other purposes. Should nature or humanity be blamed if an asteroid or comet heading towards the Earth is identified too late to take action?
The “no” perspective suggests that it is impractical to demand that resources be used to monitor and counter every conceivable threat, amongst which are gamma-ray flares from stars. These flares, such as that reported by Palmer et al. (2005), occurring within several thousand light-years of Earth could potentially cause a mass extinction. Is it reasonable to expect that humanity could and should develop a monitoring and response capability for all such threats, including those which are thousands of light-years away?
Ultimately, the choice is ours—or, at least, the rich amongst us—to make an effort or not to make an effort. At the moment, we are not even trying. We do not know whether or not space threats are an exception to “natural disasters do not exist” until we attempt to ensure that they are not an exception.
Do Natural Hazards Exist?
Nature produces phenomena—such as earthquakes, floods, wind storms, and meteorites—which can be hazardous to humanity. But they are only hazardous because of human choices. If rain comes through my window and ruins my carpet because I decided not to close my window, is the hazard the rain or my lack of forethought and action? If I approve a development in a known earthquake zone without earthquake-resistance measures, is the hazard the earthquake or my decision?
Any environmental phenomenon could be termed a “natural hazard”. Stepping off a cliff reveals the gravity hazard. Rather than suggesting that we mitigate against gravity, we instead build cliff fences, erect warning signs, and describe the dangers to children. That is, we mitigate against the human decision hazard rather than blaming nature for gravity. After all, gravity is frequently useful. Should similar standards apply to rain and earthquakes which are also frequently useful?
Nature does not create hazards; we decide that they can be hazardous to us. In the same way that natural disasters do not exist because society constructs situations where such disasters can occur, perhaps environmental phenomena are interpreted as “natural hazards” only because society constructs situations where nature’s events are hazardous to us. In fact, Hewitt (1997) refers to them as “unnatural hazards”.
They are neither natural hazards nor environmental hazards, but are human interpretations of normal and necessary events.
Conclusions: Re-visiting Gamma-Ray Flares
Yet is it fair to suggest that gamma-ray flares, supernovae, and other such events are “normal and necessary” when they wipe out life within a volume of several million cubic light years? From a human perspective, the answer is clearly “no”. But from the universe’s perspective?
Bringing the discussion back down to Earth, mass extinctions on our planet have likely been caused by large strikes from astronomical objects and flood basalts. Strikes from astronomical objects have been addressed above, but how feasible would it be to try to deal with flood basalts without large areas of Earth becoming uninhabitable and a large proportion of the human population dying? How many other such events could be contemplated:
A pandemic—but how much of a pandemic’s impacts occur due to poor governance, poverty, malnutrition, and inadequate living conditions amongst other social factors?
Sea levels rising five metres, such as from a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, or dozens of metres—although that might result from human-caused climate change.
An ice age equivalent to the previous one which the planet experienced—although that might result from human-caused climate change.
A full inventory and scientific analysis of these scenarios might provide some exceptions for the claims in this document that neither natural disasters nor natural hazards exist. Many more would be linked back to human beings. Meanwhile, we know enough to address the smaller, more regular events which kill people every day: the floods, volcanic eruptions, storms, earthquakes, avalanches, heat waves, cold waves, epidemics, lightning strikes, landslides, blizzards, hail storms, and others. The time has come to address these disasters by admitting that these events are not natural disasters and the phenomena which lead to them are not natural hazards.
Abramovitz, J. 2001. Unnatural Disasters, Worldwatch Paper 158. Worldwatch Institute, Washington, DC, USA.
Ball, N. 1975 (December). “The Myth of the Natural Disaster”. The Ecologist, vol. 5, no. 10, pp. 368-369.
Carusi, A., E. Perozzib, and H. Scholl. 2005. “Mitigation strategy”. Comptes Rendus Physique, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 367-374.
Cellino, A., R. Somma, L. Tommasi, R. Paolinetti, K. Muinonen, J. Virtanen, E.F. Tedesco, and M. Delbò. 2006. “NERO: General concept of a Near-Earth object Radiometric Observatory”. Advances in Space Research, vol. 37, pp. 153-160.
Hewitt, K. 1997. Regions of Risk: A Geographical Introduction to Disasters. Addison Wesley Longman, Essex, UK.
Isobe, S. 2000. “The Position of the Japanese Spaceguard Association with Regard to NEO Problems”. Planetary and Space Science, vol. 48, pp. 793-795.
Lewis, J. 1999. Development in Disaster-prone Places: Studies of Vulnerability. Intermediate Technology Publications, London, UK.
Mileti, D. and 136 contributing authors. 1999. Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States. Joseph Henry Press, Washington, DC, USA.
O’Keefe, P., K. Westgate, and B. Wisner. 1976. “Taking the naturalness out of natural disasters”. Nature, vol. 260, pp. 566-567.
Oliver-Smith, T. 1986. The Martyred City: Death and Rebirth in the Andes. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.
Palmer, D.M., S. Barthelmy, N. Gehrels, R.M. Kippen, T. Cayton, C. Kouveliotou, D. Eichler, R.A.M.J. Wijers, P.M. Woods, J. Granot, Y.E. Lyubarsky, E. Ramirez-Ruiz, L. Barbier, M. Chester, J. Cummings, E.E. Fenimore, M.H. Finger, B.M. Gaensler, D. Hullinger, H. Krimm, C.B. Markwardt, J.A. Nousek, A. Parsons, S. Patel, T. Sakamoto, G. Sato, M. Suzuki, and J. Tueller. 2005. “A Giant γ-ray Flare from the Magnetar SGR 1806220”. Nature, vol. 434, pp. 1107-1109.
Peter, N., A. Bartona, D. Robinson, and J.-M. Salotti. 2004. “Charting Response Options for Threatening Near-Earth Objects”. Acta Astronautica, vol. 55(3-9), pp. 325-334.
Price, S.D. and M.P. Egan. 2001. “Space Based Infrared Detection and Characterization of Near Earth Objects”. Advanced Space Research, vol. 28, no. 8, pp. 1117-1127.
Rousseau, J.J. 1756. “Rousseau à François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire” (Lettre 424, le 18 août 1756). In Correspondance complète de Jean Jacques Rousseau, Tome IV 1756-1757, ed. R.A. Leigh, 1967, pp. 37–50, Institut et musée Voltaire, Les Délices, Geneva, Switzerland.
Sieh, K. 2000. “Acts of God, Acts of Man: How Humans Turn Natural Hazards into Disasters”. Engineering & Science, no. 4, pp. 8-17.
Smith, N. 2005. “There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster”. Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the Social Sciences, online http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Smith
Steinberg, T. 2000. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America. Oxford University Press, New York, USA.
Stokes, G.H., J.B. Evans, H.E.M. Viggh, F.C. Shelly, E.C. and Pearce. 2000. “Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Program (LINEAR)”. Icarus, 148, pp. 21-28.
Tiranti, D. 1977. “The Un-natural Disasters”. The New Internationalist, no. 53, pp. 5-6.
Turcios, A.M.I. 2001. “Central America: A region with multiple threats and high vulnerability?” Norwegian Church Aid Occasional Paper Series, Number 5 / 2001.
UNISDR. 2002. Disaster Reduction for Sustainable Mountain Development: 2002 United Nations World Disaster Reduction Campaign. UNISDR (United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction), Geneva, Switzerland.
UNISDR. 2007. Terminology: Basic terms of disaster risk reduction. UNISDR (United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction), Geneva, Switzerland, http://www.unisdr.org/eng/library/lib-terminology-eng%20home.htm
White, G.F. 1942/1945. Human Adjustment to Floods: A Geographical Approach to the Flood Problem in the United States. Doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago, Department of Geography (1942) republished as Research Paper No. 29 (1945), University of Chicago, Department of Geography, Chicago, USA.
Wisner, B., P. Blaikie, T. Cannon, and I. Davis. 2004. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters (2nd ed.), Routledge, London, UK.