Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

The blame game
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 of 1871".

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 transience.

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 phases.

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 meaning.

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 professionals.
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.

First published on BBC News, 6 September 2005