Who is responsible for natural disasters? God, nature, governments...
These days, we are more likely to pin the blame on people in power.
But that can leave victims even more traumatised. As we know from
the recent tragedy of 11 September, major catastrophes and disasters
serve as historical markers. The phrase "after this event nothing
will ever be the same again" has been frequently repeated after
many other major disasters.
Frederick Francis Cook, the chronicler of the 1871 fire that destroyed
a large part of Chicago wrote that "in the minds of Chicagoans
the city's past is demarcated from the present by the great fire
Since biblical times, disasters have been experienced as key defining
moments in the human experience. Events such as the Fall of Adam
or Noah's flood were interpreted in a similar fashion and Martin
Luther represented the biblical deluge as a catalyst for speeding
up the world's decay.
Disasters make fascinating stories. They are fortunately infrequent
but when they occur they have a formidable impact on imagination
of the generations that follow.
They are often used as the headline of the master narrative through
which we understand reality and through which we make sense of human
Since they are as bad as things can get, disasters represent a
major challenge to values and meanings. That is why over the centuries,
disasters have acquired significant moral connotations.
Often perceived as Acts of God - a form of divine retribution -
disasters are frequently depicted as punishment for human transgression.
Before modern times, great catastrophes served to underline the
transient quality of human existence and the futility of all purely
human ends and acted as a stimulus for religious contemplation.
Even in today's secular times, disasters are often invested with
some hidden meaning. They are rarely perceived as just an accident
- disasters appear as events of profound significance.
Pointing the finger
Our ideas about what causes disasters have undergone three important
Traditionally, catastrophes were attributes to supernatural forces.
Throughout most of history they were seen as an act or God or of
fate. As an act of fate, catastrophes were portrayed as an inevitable
occurrence, whose destructive power could not be avoided.
The rise of secularism led to an important shift in the way society
conceptualised disasters. The development of science as the new
source of knowledge altered people's perception of disasters. They
were increasingly defined as an act of Nature. Though science could
explain why and how it occurred, a natural disaster has no special
In recent times we still talk about natural disasters but we increasingly
look for someone to blame. As a result the view that disasters are
caused by acts of nature is being gradually displaced by the idea
that they are the outcome of acts of human beings.
In the aftermath of a disaster today, the finger of blame invariably
points towards another person. Government officials, big business
or careless operatives are held responsible for most disasters.
Today, floods are less likely to be associated with divine displeasure
than with greedy property developers recklessly building in flood
plains. Events like last week's catastrophe in New Orleans are seen
as destructive events that could have and should have been avoided.
How people perceive a disaster has an important impact in the way
in which it is experienced. However, perceptions regarding causation
are shaped by cultural attitudes that endow events, especially extreme
ones with meaning.
So in the 19th Century many "technologically-caused"
disasters were interpreted as a manifestation of God's anger toward
human arrogance. In such instances, anxiety about the consequences
of technological change encouraged the perception that ultimately
a disaster was caused by an Act of God.
Today such events would be associated with human action and the
cause would be perceived as that of human irresponsibility or malevolence.
When a train crashes or a mine is flooded we spontaneously ask the
question "who is there to blame".
Legacy of bitterness
We are far less likely to represent floods, hurricanes, earthquakes
or tsunamis as natural disasters than 40 or 50 years ago. Why? Because
we live in a world where we can no longer accept that accidents
or disasters are natural.
It is worth recalling that although 20 million people died as a
result of the influenza pandemic of 1918 there was little finger
pointing or blame. Today, even a small flu epidemic would lead to
an outcry against irresponsible officials, politicians or health
Whatever its causes the blame for the loss of lives in such an epidemic
would be placed on people rather than nature.
Today, the meaning of a catastrophe, like the one unleashed by
Hurricane Katrina, is fiercely contested. There is no one moral
story that we are all prepared to accept. That means we are in danger
of facing a double disaster. One that is about physical destruction
and loss of life, and the other which is the legacy of bitterness,
confusion and suspicion.
Instead of a powerful story that we can learn from there is a risk
that we will become disoriented by an obsession to blame.
published on BBC News, 6 September 2005