• Stephan Raab

Disasters and History: The Vulnerability and Resilience of Past Societies

Present experiences show that it is relevant, perhaps even more than ever, to use the historical record to increase our understanding of disasters. However, what are disasters, how do we avoid them, and how do we learn from them? This book introduces the reader into the fascinating world of disaster studies, explaining why disasters are a matter of perception and measures.

When hazards turn into disasters

Disasters and History provides an extensive historical overview of hazards and diseases. This overview ranges from the Back Death, through the Lisbon earthquake, and up until the Fukushima disaster. Appealing to various case studies, the authors examine how societies dealt with risks and shocks. Often, news coverage still distinguishes between man-made, such as Fukushima and natural catastrophes like hurricane Katherina. Conversely, the key thesis of this book argues that those kinds of distinctions do not fit the conception of hazards and disasters any longer. “Even though the initial shock was a natural event, the catastrophic outcome was ultimately the result of human intervention or the lack of it. Put simply, without existing–societal vulnerability, the chances of a hazard turning into a disaster are small” (p.22).

The first chapter provides a theoretical approach for understanding the origins and causes for the emergence of disasters. Three schools of thought are discussed. From a Malthusian point of view, disasters are the results of a lack of resources, as for instance the lack of food for a population to sustain themselves. From a Marxist point of view, disasters are the results of an unequal distribution, where due to a class struggle certain groups are barred from access to resources. Finally, from a Smithsonian perspective, there is a lack of diversification, allowing a certain population to compensate a lack of resources through commercialization and markets. The last one focuses mostly on the coordination aspect.

Human history is a disaster story

The history of mankind facing disasters is be labeled as “Against the Gods[1] by Peter Bernstein. Here, the author describes the evolution of risk management as a result of the enlightenment process. Since its early beginning, mankind was eager to study the causes and consequences of disasters and trying to avoid or at least mitigate them. This mostly came through a mystical blessing by celestial forces such as the “Mandate of Heaven” in ancient China. There, the emperor of China was responsible for the wellbeing and prosperity of the nation. As soon as catastrophes such as bad harvests or civil unrests emerged, this was a sign that the “Mandate of Heaven” was withdrawn by heaven. Consequently, the official history of each dynasty included a subsection of the “Five Phases” or “Five Elements”, listing certain weather anomalies and disasters such as floods or even the appearance of dragons. Similarly, on the Arabic Peninsula, Ibn-Khaldun defined a permanent circle of rise and demise of dynasties and rulers, that come to power in a situation of crisis and demised in such a situation as well. A well studied model for the European context is the “Polder-Model” in the Netherlands. Facing permanent flooding and loss of land, society was forced to develop a very balanced type of corporation to gain land and protect those with very sophisticated technology. Exposed to the benevolence of the gods, with time mankind became more aware of its own capacities.


The model above displays how disasters impact and shape the patterns of a society. Having gone through a certain crisis such as the potato famine in Ireland, colonialism in the Global South, or the Second World War in Europe, serves as a point of common identification. According to the “Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein, the modern Western Societies have used all kinds of disasters such as war, hurricanes, or tsunamis to push through fundamental societal change, which might not have been feasible in a “normal” or non-crisis situation.

Every crisis is a chance to learn

Until the 1990s, a disaster was considered simply a disruption of normalcy, or what during the Covid pandemic was coined as “new normal”. In contrast to that, the authors reveal the evolution of a new kind of profession, the so-called experts. “Disasters test the capacity of societies to learn and adapt in order to prevent recurrences, or at the very least to mitigate the impact of subsequent shocks” (p.181). Regarding for instance navigation, experts, from the root of experience, were well-versed elder seamen with a long experience on board. Conversely, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, experts and expertise became more and more expressed in special statistical models. Consequently, learning from experience slowly started to convert into learning from theory, changing the patterns of accumulating knowledge.

Nevertheless, the authors warn, that any form of knowledge is always contextual. Referring to various case studies, it becomes obvious, that one model of risk management might not serve a “one risk fits all” approach when dealing with other kinds of challenges. “A mismatch of priorities between what ‘outsiders’ consider as disaster risks and the different ways in which risks are perceived and responded to by ‘insiders can cause ‘culture gaps,’ which may lead to negative outcomes for those who have little say” (p.104). In the Philippines for instance a culture of “bahal na” (leave it to the fate) prevailed, shunning risks by relocating rather than adapting to them. However, learning experiences from the past do not last forever, as due to a lack of disasters for many years or even generations a process of “de-learning” can also take place.

Future disasters and future discourses

One key argument underpinning this monograph is that ‘the past’ can be used as a ‘laboratory’ to empirically test hypotheses of relevance to the present, by spatially and chronologically comparing the drivers of and constraints on societal responses to shocks – in turn enriching our understanding of responses to stress today” (p.173). Having discussed several case studies, the authors figure out potential global hazards for the future. Those are the climate change of the Anthropocene, Capitalism, and the Risk Society. Nevertheless, disasters are affecting all parts of society, admittedly not equally, the authors lament, that there is still a missing link for interdisciplinarity to be filled for collaboration in the field of disaster studies.

In the 1980s German sociologist Ulrich Beck coined the term “Risk Society[2]. Those kinds of societies are determined less by the distribution of resources, and more by the exposure to risk. “Disasters and History” reveals that the history of mankind is a permanent story of disasters and how to cope with them. That said, by considering history not as something from the past, but the present as a continuum of the past, the authors encourage the readers to take history as a laboratory to learn and prepare for the risks of the future.

Take the risk, read the book, understand the risk!

“Risk relates to human agency and perception, which guide the strategies deployed by individuals or groups to manage and calculate the potential occurrence of harm” (p.40). Having gone through the disastrous history of our species, this book is worth taking the risk to delve deeper into the field of disaster studies. Besides many case studies this book provides beginners and experts alike with profound scientific tools. Those help to conceive terms such as risk, vulnerability, or resilience and how to define and measure those phenomena. Especially in times of pandemics and various other risks, this book serves as guide into an ever more connected world full of surprises. Furthermore, it gives courage, revealing positive aspects in gloomy times. Every crisis provides a chance to learn for improving the status quo.

To conclude this book review, “Disaster and History” is highly recommend through one message: “Risk is nothing to be feared but to be understood properly for not becoming a disaster!”

Disasters and History: The Vulnerability and Resilience of Past Societies

Bas van Bavel • Daniel R. Curtis • Jessica Dijkman Matthew Hannaford • Maïka de Keyzer- Eline van Onacker • Tim Soens

free for download at https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/disasters-and-history/0E0A126BFA23BFA416D8AABC75014D59

[1] Bernstein, Peter (1998): Against the Gods-The remarkable story of risk; John Willey &Sons; Hoboken; USA: [2] Beck, Ulrich (1986): Risikogesellschaft- Auf dem Weg in die Moderne; Suhrkamp; Frankfurt am Main.

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