Is there such a thing as a natural disaster? The lessons of environmental history

In a recent essay published in the Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand newsletter, University of Canterbury Professor of Geography Eric Pawson asks why people are becoming more – not less – vulnerable to environmental disasters. Recent events, such as the recent Canterbury earthquakes, the Japan earthquake and tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Victorian bushfires of 2009 have brought this question to the fore. The primary reason for this increasing vulnerability has been our growing confidence in the human ability to control nature through engineering and other means, leading us to disregard the recurrent and inevitable threat posed by natural hazards.

Is it possible that the more we invest on defences and mitigation against natural events such as floods the costlier the human and economic losses become? Apparently, yes. The New Zealand environmental scientist Neil Ericksen showed as far back as the mid-1980s that the more that had been spent on river flood defences in New Zealand, the greater the extent of losses from floods over time. As defence costs rose, losses escalated, in a country where almost every town or city is flood prone. The reason is that local governments, developers and consumers assume that it is safe to occupy land once it is apparently protected by a flood defence scheme.

The essay goes on to ask what can be done to address this increased vulnerability. The first step, Professor Pawson suggests, is to cease referring to these events as “natural disasters”, “a term that does nothing to admit the role of human awareness or culpability”. Rather, history – both the recent human past and the deep geological past – demonstrates that these events are not unprecedented disasters, but “natural events”, which have been happening for as long as historical or geological time allows.

The essay contains many more fascinating insights into how we perceive “natural disasters” and the role that environmental history has to play in understanding them in their proper context – a highly recommended read! Natural Disasters and Natural Hazards in EHSANZ (pp.3-4). (Link takes you to a new page – click on document link to open it).

Photo top: a wave of water generated by the March 2011 Japanese earthquake hits the north-east coast of Japan. Right: Professor Eric Pawson.

See also: Nature strikes again – beautiful Tohoku’s coastal towns devastated by tsunami; Earthquake reveals the forgotten streams of Christchurch; Christchurch: a city haunted by its environmental past?

Also: We have still not lived long enough, by Tom Griffiths (2009)

5 thoughts on “Is there such a thing as a natural disaster? The lessons of environmental history

  1. Alex Hall (@Green_Gambit) September 16, 2011 / 1:00 am

    An interesting piece, there are several authors whose work discusses similar themes much earlier than both Pawson, Bankoff, and Steinberg.

    I recommend:
    “Natural Disasters, Acts of God or acts of Man?” by Wijkman and Timberlake (1984- Earthscan) as a simple, but earlier intro into the question.

    And a paper that always astounds me with its publication date, Carr, L. J. (1932): “Disaster and the Sequence-Pattern Concept of Social Change.” The American Journal of Sociology. In this paper Carr unlike many later authors doesn’t separate his analysis along the lines of anthropogenic and natural disaster, preferring to demarcate more along their sociological characteristics.

    Good to see someone blogging on this topic,


  2. envirohistorynz September 17, 2011 / 7:42 am

    Thank you Alex, for these useful references. This is a topic that has certainly become very relevant to people in New Zealand since the Canterbury earthquakes. envirohistory NZ

  3. Brooke W May 5, 2017 / 6:38 am

    Interesting view, never thought of natural disaster not actually being natural but this makes a ton of sense. Thanks for your perspective. I’m going to share some other posts i saw about natural disasters to see if you agree with them: Natural Disasters Essay

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