Disaster Narratives: Predictions, Preparedness, & Lessons

It’s important that you know that I think that when I refer to “catastrophic conversations” in the introductions to the podcasts I’m referring to the topic and its tenor, not how I think the conversation went. Last fall I spoke with Scott Knowles, an historian of disasters at Drexel University. He is the author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America. In a pre-Trump era, the discussion ranged rather happily along lines of risk, slow disasters, disaster policy, and how to use history to inform contemporary debate. This first issue—risk—is one that has run in the background of many of my research interests, and so I was very interested to learn from Knowles how he engaged with it.

What I’ve long admired about Knowles’s work is its ability to cross boundaries between academic theory and practical policymaking. A couple of weeks after our conversation, the impossible happened. Trump was elected President of the United States, and the whole idea of disasters and disaster preparedness went out the window. Nobody knew what would happen next. What if—perish the thought—2017 turned out to be a bad hurricane year? As the summer passed and I prepared to publish the podcast series on a weekly basis, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma crashed through the Gulf Coast. While the storms may have subsided, it’s much too early to evaluate the nature of disaster and destruction—or to think about what lessons we might have learned. Nevertheless, Knowles provides valuable insight into how we need to understand, calculate, and manage risk and disaster in the contemporary world.

Next week: 26 September: “Catastrophe in the Age of Revolutions” (with Cindy Ermus)


5 September: “Dysfunctional Relationships: Love Songs for Pesticides” (with Michelle Mart)

12 September: “Catastrophic Environmentalism: Histories of the Cold War” (with Jacob Hamblin)

Catastrophic Environmentalism: Histories of the Cold War

The second instalment of the “Bedtime Stories” podcast series is a conversation I had with Jacob Hamblin, an historian at Oregon State University, last fall. A few years ago, Hamblin very kindly skyped into my undergraduate “History of the Future” class to talk about his book, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. They enjoyed the book and got a lot out of his participation in class, which consisted of a bit of a back-and-forth between us and a Q&A with the students. That book and his current work prompted my desire to talk with him for this series on catastrophic history.

Please feel free to join in the conversation in the comments section below.

Next week: 19 September: “Disaster Narratives: Predictions, Preparedness, & Lessons” (with Scott Knowles)

Previous: 5 September: “Dysfunctional Relationships: Love Songs for Pesticides” (with Michelle Mart)

Dysfunctional Relationships: Love Songs for Pesticides

This interview with Michelle Mart marks the substantive start to “Catastrophe is our Bedtime Story” podcast series on catastrophic history. I spoke with Mart, an historian at Penn State Berks, last October about her recent book, Pesticides, a Love Story: America’s Enduring Embrace of Dangerous Chemicals. Given my own interest in hazardous materials, this conversation seemed the right place to begin this inaugural series of discussions on catastrophic history.

Please feel free to join in the conversation in the comments section below

Next week: “Catastrophic Environmentalism: Histories of the Cold War” ( with Jacob Hamblin)

Catastrophe is our Bedtime Story

Happy new (academic) year. With new years come new resolutions, promises, and projects. I resolve to post/write more. I promise. Here’s a new project!

The embedded Soundcloud tab below is the introductory podcast for a new audio series I am launching this fall. During the fall of 2016 and winter 2017, I interviewed a number of colleagues in and around catastrophic history. What is catastrophic history? Click the audio for a brief introduction. And stay tuned for future conversations. The series title, “Catastrophe is our Bedtime Story,” comes from Don DeLillo’s Zero K. I rather liked the vulgarity of the suggestion.

Thanks for listening!


Experimenting with Digital Tools

This is an experiment. In January, I will be teaching a new course called “Catastrophic History.” One of the student group projects will involve using Timeline JS to reconstruct and visualize disasters. It occurred to me that I should play around with the tool before turning it over to students. Surprisingly, my problem stemmed most from having to identify a quick and manageable project to itemize in the tool’s accessible spreadsheet. My toxic fear research, for example, consisted of an almost infinite number of prospective moments to fit along a timeline. As a result, I turned to something a little more frivolous. As part of a present for my older children, I’m compiling (read: imposing) a playlist of Bob Dylan’s greatest songs for their listening education. They will be grateful. Here’s the playlist, in chronological order (of course!).


For the record: this all took less than half an hour, while getting my littlest ready for bed. Timeline JS makes this very easy. I see, however, that it’s possible to vary all kinds of aesthetics, including typeface, background colour (which I simply alternated one page from the next), etc. The finished products can be visually impressive and, I hope, instructive to students.

Parameters of Catastrophic History


Is there a better or more important time to be thinking about catastrophic history? During the Winter 2017 semester, I will be teaching HIST 3CH3, Catastrophic History: Natural & Technological Disasters, for the first time. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process of conceiving of the class and in imagining its trajectory, not least because it will be taught in McMaster’s new Wilson Building, in a new active classroom. Rather than offering a more traditional lecture course, I will be turning much of the adventure over to students. The key emphasis will be on student discovery through a series of introductory digital research skills that I will be teaching.

The course begins with an investigation of responses to and rationalizations for the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Trying to make sense of catastrophe, I submit, is as historically significant (maybe more so) than the explosive moment of a catastrophe itself. I likely don’t have any specific endpoint for the class mapped out, but the last week of readings will consider Hurricane Katrina in the context of neoliberalism.

But another series of questions for students will involve establishing parameters for the course itself. What is a disaster? Does war or genocide or economic collapse belong within the boundaries of catastrophic history and our examination of it? We certainly think of them as disasters—historical actors refer to crises and disasters in the context of war and genocide and fiscal uncertainty. What distinguishes them from earthquakes or tsunamis or dam failures? With these kinds of questions in mind, another tack involves asking what is a natural disaster? And what is the difference between a natural and a technological disaster? Scott Knowles, for example, asks whether Hurricane Katrina was a weather event or a technology failure (302). It’s an pretty provocative question, and one that undermines our much-too-comfortable reading of “natural” disasters as “acts of god”: chance happenings that are beyond human control. That idea—that disaster and catastrophe both trade in surprise or fate (note how both have etymological roots in the idea of fate being in the stars)—requires careful exploration.

Another subtext—one I don’t mean to impress heavily on students, unless the course tenor warrant it—is engaging with the catastrophic more directly. Here, I’ve been reading and thinking about Walter Benjamin, Günther Anders, and other philosophers who sought to situate catastrophe at the heart of the human condition. Rather than uncontrolled, uncontrollable syncopation in the fundamentally progressive narrative of human history, what happens if catastrophe is the norm, undermining traditional faith in progress? That idea resonates with many of the philosophical reflections on the Lisbon earthquake. Voltaire found himself rejecting any belief in a benevolent god in Candide, and lampooning (not to mentioning executing) his Dr. Pangloss, an all-too-unsubtle caricature of Leibniz as defender of the “best of all possible worlds” worldview. The same uncomfortable sense of catastrophe as a lynchpin for human history is prevalent in Benjamin’s witnessing of the failure of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Third Reich. Benjamin would commit suicide in 1940, before his capture by the Gestapo. But his cousin, Anders, saw the triumph of the Allied forces, but watched the world devolve into Cold War and saw, in the growing atomic arsenal, a new and even more ominous expression of civilizational destruction. Today, the Holocaust and nuclear apocalypse leave scars, but they are less immediately threatening. Instead, we reckon with refugee crises, climate change, new economic collapses, a new wave of fascist politics, a broadening gulf between wealth and poverty the world over with an elite class managing to insulate themselves evermore from the masses. In brief, a side project—working only in the shadows of this undergraduate course—is to develop a new theory for catastrophic history for the twenty-first century.

Margaret Mead & How to Change the World


May we live in interesting times. This is a curse that history says we can never avoid. My reading of catastrophic history dictates that we live the disasters we create. And the events of last week promise that we are bound for evermore interesting times ahead. Stick with me, baby, croons Bob Dylan in “Mississippi,” stick with me anyhow. Things should start to get interesting right about now. Too right.

Since Tuesday night, my corner of the Twittersphere has been laden with laments for what is to come and with rallying cries for more organization, more protests, and more efforts to unite concerned citizens against the worries of xenophobia, homophobia, and the multitude of phobias that have given rise to the Age of Trump. In the backdrop of this, I’m reminded of the famous assertion above from Margaret Mead (1901-1978), who died 38 years ago today.

Mead might be the most famous American anthropologist of the twentieth century—or indeed the world’s most recognizable anthropologist. Bold claims, perhaps. But her 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa, made her an immediate public intellectual, and she maintained that role for the next fifty years. Maybe I’ve missed it, but I’d love to see a good and recent biography that considers especially her role as a public intellectual and science activist.

I first encountered Mead, in my work on Barry Commoner. In the 1950s, the two collaborated in promoting science activism and social responsibility within the American Association for the Advancement of Science during fraught divisions over the potential hazards of nuclear weapons testing and fallout. Commoner regarded her as an important ally and mentor. He also spoke highly and warmly of her in a number of oral histories I conducted with him. Commoner’s correspondence files at the Library of Congress contained numerous letters to and from Mead. And I also dipped into Mead’s papers, which are also held at the Library of Congress.

Mead’s suggestion that activists should not be discouraged by the scale and scope of the opposition that confronts them—that commitment and dedication to a cause—against all odds—and that thoughtful engagements with “the good” are not only necessary but history-making—has long been a tenet and famous defence of grassroots organizing. From a humble seed grows the giant oak. It is a powerful reminder that change comes from inside all of us. And that we should act. It’s an important message, and one I regularly share with students.

But something about last week presented to me my first glimpse at a cynical rereading of Mead’s clarion call for grassroots activists. You can subvert that message. Rather than conveying hope, it can express despair. Small groups of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. Not always for good. And they’re not always doing it from kitchen tables or church basements. Sometimes those small groups live in gilded towers and wield inconceivable amounts of power. I can’t believe this is what Margaret Mead meant, but I’m prompted into this reinterpretation by the current climate of our newly interesting times.