“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.”

This essay and others at Understanding Katrina were written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, addressing the political and social issues laid bare by the devastation. They call the supposed “naturalness” of disasters a form of ideological camouflage for the fact that many dimensions of a disaster are preventable.

Even when the hazard itself is natural, like the earthquakes devastating Mexico, the effects are socially determined. Meanwhile, the battering ram of  hurricanes in the last month was doubly so, exacerbated by the unnatural role of climate change that the government and special interests continue to let go unchecked. It’s easier – and more convenient – to dismiss disasters as an Act of God than to address them as failures of government, infrastructure, and preparedness.




In Book I, Part V of Les Miserables, we are reintroduced to Valjean as Mssr. Madeleine, who, in between committing a series of agricultural good deeds, pauses to spend a near full page amiably lecturing the local farmers about the beneficial uses of nettles, with a less amiable aside on the failings of society. As a character moment, I’ve always been fond of this quote in its gentle ridiculousness, but it also quietly captures not only Valjean’s worldview but also the broad theme of the book, the vast potential that is snuffed out by the failures of an oppressive society that doesn’t just neglect the powerless and unfortunate, but actively rips them out by the roots.