Students of an elementary school doing earthquake simulation in West Sumatra, Indonesia (2012).
By Jason von Meding and Ksenia Chmutina
Some scholars argue that “natural disaster” is simply a term of convenience and that the public readily understands that disasters originate from the structures of society. But public discourses—often centered around particular hazard or event-focused narratives of destruction—seem to suggest otherwise.
A lack of understanding about how risk is created isn’t surprising when blame is continually attributed to nature. By naturalizing disaster in discourse, efforts to address unequal impacts are stripped of political power and the focus often shifts to taming nature.
As disaster researchers, we were concerned about the lack of data to demonstrate the tangible impacts of the disaster language that we use and, more broadly, of this “natural” framing. Our current research works to change this and enable dialogue with critics who argue that pushing back on the expression “natural disaster” is driven by bias and value judgements.
The Limitations of Previous Debate
Debate about the origin of disaster risk has been ongoing on for centuries (e.g. see Rousseau and Voltaire in the 18th Century), and while scholarship in disaster studies is now rarely devoid of a strong appreciation of the vulnerability paradigm—articulating how risk is created by society—an overarching “natural” framing still more often persists, than not.
Since 2017, we have been looking for ways to shake up this debate. As researchers involved in science communication, we have written, recorded and mobilized around the issue. In the academic space, we started investigating the contemporary usage of the expression “natural disaster” both in academic literature and international organization publications, such as the UN Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction. Our research found that, overwhelmingly, “natural disaster” is used without critique as a convenience term.
In these various works, we have argued that this lack of critique leads to many potential problems. Those responsible for creating risk—such as developers building in floodplains or legislators rolling back social safety programs—are able to avoid detection when blame is placed beyond human agency. Inequality, while recognized, is also framed as a somewhat natural state that must be ameliorated, rather than a human design upheld to profit a minority. In this unjust context, aid can be offered to the vulnerable without ever addressing their systemic oppression.
But a theoretical debate has its limits. For instance, one reviewer of our work concluded that there was no problem with the natural disaster expression “unless one suffers from an excess of political correctness.” The challenge we took from this criticism was to prove the tangible implications not only of the language, but of the broader framing and stories of disaster.
Taking on the Challenge: Testing the Impacts of a Natural Disaster Frame
We decided to find a way to test the impact of framing disasters as natural. Collaborating with the psychology department at the University of Florida—and using the infrastructure of Project Implicit, which helps to educate the public about hidden biases—we designed the initial experiment.
We measured the political orientation, attitudes to social issues, beliefs about disaster causality, and risk mitigation preferences of 507 participants from 40 countries. We were initially interested in whether a person’s understanding of the origin of risk as natural corresponded to purely technocratic approaches to dealing with risk. (i.e., to protect ourselves from nature’s wrath.)
We found that this was indeed the case, and that implicit attitudes towards the underlying cause of disasters strongly correlated to ideological and political divides. We delved further into the data to analyze people’s perceptions of who or what was to blame for disaster impact. This again differed based on understanding of the origin of risk.
The results were compelling enough to warrant further study. Our follow up experiment is currently examining the impact of simply adding the word ‘natural’ to narratives about disaster (comparing ‘disaster’ and ‘natural disaster’).
Shifting the Frame Away from Nature
To begin the important process of shifting the frame of disasters, we can emphasize systemic oppression and structural violence when we discuss vulnerability. Risk is created and accumulates with human decisions. Vulnerability is underpinned by the avoidable—yet often invisible—political, economic, cultural, and legal limitations that prevent some groups from achieving equality and equity.
In this sense, the words we use matter. In a recent article, Natural Hazards Center Director Lori Peek highlighted that some people are the bearers of vulnerability. This is critical. At times the harm may be unintentional, but it is still a manifestation of violence and oppression. We can oppose such oppression through the careful choice of both words and actions.
The language that we use and the stories that we tell change the way that an audience engages with an issue. Too often disaster discourses fail to consider power, oppression, inequality, and injustice. Our ongoing research suggests that a more critical approach to writing and speaking is needed—because framing of disasters as natural is not only inaccurate, it upholds an oppressive status quo.