Earthquakes in Nepal, devastating floods in South-East Asia, Ebola in Africa, extreme cold along the American Eastcoast… welcome in the “Age of Vulnerability”. When humanity entered the Anthropocene – the new geological epoch, in which man is a driving force of the climatic, biological and geophysical conditions of life, we apparently also entered an age of increased exposure to shocks and disasters.
In this course, we aim to investigate the added value of a historical approach to the study of disasters. Several of the major societal and scientific debates surrounding our present-day vulnerability to climate fluctuations and other environmental shocks, have striking historical dimensions. History allows us question the relative agency of ‘nature’ and ‘society’ in the production of natural disasters, but also the long-term path-dependencies, causes and consequences of disasters. Furthermore, history, according to some scholars, has a largely unexplored potential as an empirical lab to explore why some societies are more vulnerable to ‘natural’ disaster than others. Instead of seeing disasters as sudden and exogenous shocks taking a society by surprise, history allows to contextualize disasters, and show how endogenous features of society might turn a ‘natural hazard’ into a catastrophe (or not).
This course offers an exploration of the literature and debates on the history of disaster, in relation to the highly interdisciplinary field of disaster studies. Furthermore, case-studies (from the medieval period until the 20th century) will be developed allowing students to explore and discuss the potential of history for a better understanding of disasters.
Some of the case-studies elaborated:
* The Lisbon 1755 Earthquake: the first ‘modern disaster’?
* The Irish Potato Crisis of 1848 and the Bengal Famine of 1943: a question of availability or entitlement of food?
* The Great Crisis of the Seventeenth Century (Geoffrey Parker, Timothy Brook): Vulcanoes, Sun Spots, and Political Crisis in Europe and China.
* The Great Famine of 1315-17: between Climate, Marx and Malthus.
* Flood Disasters: from medieval Superstorms in the North Sea Area to Hurricane Katrina
Some of the debates addressed:
* Modernity and the rise of a ‘risk society’, (Ulrich Beck)
* The origins of the Anthropocene and the “Great Acceleration” of geo- and bio-physical conditions in the post-WW II period (Krutzen, Steffen)
* Disasters and economic development: does growth and welfare protect against disaster (‘the environmental Kuznets curve’)?
* Are socially inclusive better protected against disaster (cfr. Acemoglu and Robinson)
* Famine: food availability versus food entitlement.
* Technology and the control of disaster.
* Disaster and othering: discourses on vulnerability and resilience.