Acts of God, Man, and System: Knowledge, Technology, and the Construction of Disaster

Monday, 16 July 2018: 10:30
Oral Presentation
Ryan HAGEN, Columbia University, USA
This paper that risk and disaster, as problems of knowledge, are fundamentally shaped by the dominant knowledge paradigms and technological ecologies of the periods in which they are generated, experienced and examined. To illustrate the idea, this paper proposes three distinct periods in the construction of disaster as a public problem, each linked to changes in scientific knowledge for understanding the world and developments in technologies for manipulating it. These periods confront disaster, sequentially, as acts of God, acts of man, and acts of global systems. The periods are illustrated in this paper through examinations of one characteristic event in each time period: (1) The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, along with the disenchantment of natural disaster and the attendant rise of the environmental sciences that followed, (2) the Halifax munitions explosion of 1917, which occurred amid the statistical revolution in efforts to confront communicable diseases, urban fires, and the newly emerging problems of industrial and railway accidents in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and (3) The devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the summer of 2017, which took place against the backdrop of global anthropogenic catastrophe and network failures, a framing genealogically rooted in the problem of nuclear war beginning in the 1950s and continuing to the present threats of global warming, emerging infectious diseases, terrorism, and cyber-disruption.