In the aftermath of catastrophe, the inescapable question arises: Who is responsible? The term ‘disaster’ has its roots in the French word désastré (‘disastered’), which was in turn derived from the Italian dis-astrato, signaling the state of being abandoned by the protective stars (literally de-starred). So to be in disaster is to be left to one’s miserable fate by the cosmic agencies that are ultimately responsible for earthly calamities; in this interpretation of disaster, human beings are not responsible for the destruction. As Edmund in King Lear remarks, ‘When we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit/ Of our own behavior, we make guilty of our/ Disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars’.
However, since the emergence of the modern discourse on disaster, following the Lisbon earthquake, the idea of disaster willed by God or controlled by cosmic forces was replaced by one of ‘human-engineered calamity’ (Marie-Hélène Huet). Disaster became politicized, and could only be understood outside theological terms. As Chateaubriand writes of the 1832 cholera: ‘This plague without imagination has encountered no cloisters, no monks, no graves or gothic crypts; like the terror in 1793, it has strolled mockingly in broad daylight, in a brand new world’ (translated by Huet). This brand new world is a world of risk, in which humans are capable of manufacturing great hazards that harm the very communities that civilization has worked so hard to construct. Some disaster sociologists would even go so far as to argue that there is no such a thing as a natural disaster, for all calamities are channeled, enabled or amplified by human systems.
In the philosophical debate that followed the Lisbon earthquake, Rousseau unrelentingly placed responsibility for the disaster in the hands of humans. In a letter to Voltaire, Rousseau writes that, ‘The majority of our physical misfortunes are also our work…If the residents of [Lisbon] had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer and perhaps none at all. Everyone would have fled at the first shock’. From Rousseau’s perspective, it was poor construction that claimed the lives of the citizens; the catastrophe is therefore a social matter. The residents also perished because they refused to leave their possessions, and were therefore buried in the rubble along with their treasures (NB: Before the earthquake, the city of Lisbon was known for its wealth). As Rousseau states in the Second Discourse, the new man, perfected and thus corrupted, have built far from Eden an unstable city that he prizes above his own well-being. His subsequent downfall is thus a result of his own greed.
This shifting of focus from God’s wrath to man’s own corruption brings forth a new understanding of disasters that is still valid today. We only have to look at the poorly constructed levees in New Orleans and the decisions to build nuclear plants in earthquake-prone regions to grasp the full extent of the role that humanity plays in catastrophes. Disaster prevention and reconstruction remain fraught processes due to mismanagement, financial obstacles, social inequality, and inefficient bureaucracy, all of which fracture the precarious sense of solidarity built in the aftermath of destruction (Fukushima is a case in point – a topic for another post).
There are also other instances in which human activity directly causes disaster. It has long been suspected that industrial drilling, or hydraulic fracturing (otherwise known as fracking) causes tremors in regions otherwise not known for earthquakes. Fracking is a process by which highly-pressurized fluids are pumped into the earth to shatter rocks and release natural gas; the waste liquid is then injected back underground. While the research results remain inconclusive, it is almost guaranteed that companies will continue to drill even if fracking does cause earthquakes. The absence of ethics in this case could lead to the death of thousands. And when that occurs, it would no longer be possible to blame ‘the sun, the moon, and the stars’.
[To Be Continued]