“There’s no such thing as a natural disaster”

Scholars have been using this frame for years to critique how the term ‘natural’ effaces the power inequalities that disasters both expose and exacerbate in society.  Here’s environmental geographer Neil Smith of CUNY on how his field approaches the idea:

It is generally accepted among environmental geographers that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In every phase and aspect of a disaster – causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction – the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.

Smith was writing about Hurricane Katrina in that post (which was originally published in the Social Science Research Council’s Understanding Katrina forum).

The same idea was explored in Gregory’s Squires’ There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, a 2006 collection which argues that “the impact of the hurricane was uneven, and race and class were deeply implicated in the unevenness.”

So this frame has been well-established around critical explorations of Katrina, race and economics. But last week was the first time I’ve heard it applied,

  1. in a completely mainstream, non-academic setting,
  2. in the context of human-made global warming, and
  3. linked specifically to the economic globalization.

The source?  Badass Philippines lead negotiator Yeb Sano, throwing down at the opening gathering of the UN climate summit in Warsaw in the devastating aftermath of Typhoon Haidan: “We must stop calling events like these as natural disasters. […] It is not natural when science already tells us that global warming will induce more intense storms. It is not natural when the human species has already profoundly changed the climate.

Disasters are never natural. They are the intersection of factors other than physical. They are the accumulation of the constant breach of economic, social, and environmental thresholds. Most of the time disasters [are] a result of inequity and the poorest people of the world are at greatest risk because of their vulnerability and decades of maldevelopment, which I must assert is connected to the kind of pursuit of economic growth that dominates the world; the same kind of pursuit of so-called economic growth and unsustainable consumption that has altered the climate system.

Bracing stuff. You can read the entire statement here. H/T to Matt Thompson for the original quote.