To protect its citizens is the key task of a state; natural hazards test and challenge this ability to protect. Thus states try to turn them from inconceivable dangers into predictable events, to install preventive measures and develop disaster reaction mechanisms. Catastrophes are a matter of survival - not only for those hit by the disaster, but also for the credibility and legitimacy of government.
The contributions in the December issue of Behemoth deal with the relationships between state and disaster in several historic instances, and stress the importance of interpretation in the face of uncertainty. They focus on methods of anticipation and coping strategies in order to come to terms with such disruptive incidents, and explore the social meanings of disaster.
Die Kernaufgabe eines Staates liegt im Schutz seiner Bürger; Naturkatastrophen stellen diese Fähigkeit auf die Probe. Dementsprechend versuchen Staaten, scheinbar unberechenbare Naturereignisse berechenbar zu machen, Vorsorge zu treffen und ein Katastrophenschutzsystem aufzubauen. Katastrophen sind eine Frage des Überlebens - nicht nur für die betroffenen Menschen, sondern auch für die Glaubwürdigkeit eines Staatsapparats.
Die Beiträge in der diesjährigen Dezemberausgabe des Behemoth beschäftigen sich mit dem Verhältnis zwischen „Staat“ und „Katastrophe“ anhand verschiedener Beispiele aus der alten, neueren und neuesten Geschichte und betonen das Gewicht, das Interpretationsfragen angesichts der Unabwägbarkeiten von katastrophalen Risiken zukommt. Die Artikel behandeln Strategien der Vorhersage und des Umgangs mit extremen Naturereignissen und erkunden die soziale Bedeutung von Katastrophen.
Catastrophic events by definition disturb or destroy existing patterns of order. Such patterns of order include the built environment, but also social order and institutional structures (the state apparatus). Thus, disasters represent a moment of radical social change, including (at least temporarily) weak public institutions.
Thus, disasters are not merely natural phenomena, but socially defined events in a double sense: First, even the most ‘natural disasters’ have a human part in it; e.g. an earthquake turns into a disaster only in places where people live and are severely affected by that earthquake. Anticipating such dangers, human beings have developed numerous more or less successful ways of protecting themselves from the effects of such natural events.
Secondly, a catastrophe is what is declared a catastrophe, to put it very simply. This refers primarily to the expectation of potential disastrous events. Developing statistically defined probabilities of a certain catastrophic event frames the mode of perception and discussion of this potential event, of societal responsibilities and individual duties.
The 3rd issue of Behemoth. A Journal on Civilisation looks at different perspectives on how catastrophes are socially defined and constructed. Contributions may address, but are not limited to one of the following topics:
1. Disasters as “state of exception” and/or as triggering social change
Reactions to extreme “natural” events such as storm surges form part of what later comes to be known as ‘the catastrophe’. Various forms of spontaneous behaviour emerge, while institutionalized ways of dealing with ‘normal’ challenges within society no longer suffice, turn out to be inadequate or are unavailable in the given moment. The process of recovery is by definition a time of uncertainty and openness that might feature new or untested ways of societal organization beyond known patterns of state order. At the same time, such events often lay bare hidden flaws, be it social inequity, inadequate preparedness of state institutions or mistrust in public institutions and in the legitimacy of state/ government.
2. Disasters as (un)foreseeable and ungovernable events
Many states, especially those based on disaster-prone territory, prepare for potential disasters. Still, these preparations often turn out to be insufficient or inapt. This points at least in two directions: (a) From the point of view of state agencies, potential disasters can be transformed into (calculable) risks with certain presumed characteristics, which allow preparing and mitigating steps; (b) still, this does not guarantee a successful prevention strategy. Despite all efforts, the anticipated event may turn out to be ungovernable.
3. Societal vulnerabilities and resilience vis-à-vis disasters
Still, societies tend to rebound from disasters. Here, discourses on vulnerability and resilience gain importance, the first generally referring to weaknesses or exposures with respect to more or less defined risks, the second usually describing a general robustness that allows societies, persons or buildings to withstand damage from disastrous events.
Read all abstracts here
Editorial (Article, PDF)
Die Natur der Gefahr. Zur Geschichte der Überschwemmungsversicherung in Deutschland und den USA, (Abstract) (Article, PDF)
James K. Mitchell
Including the capacity for coping with surprises in post-disaster recovery policies.
Reflections on the experience of Tangshan, China (Abstract) (Article, PDF)
The vulnerable can't speak. An integrative vulnerability approach to disaster and climate change research (Abstract) (Article, PDF)
Regen, Erdbeben und Klimawandel.
Die Katastrophe der unrechtmäßigen Herrschaft in antiker literarischer Tradition (Abstract) (Article, PDF)