How Are Natural Disasters Socially Constructed?

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While natural disasters such as floods, drought and hurricanes are commonly thought to occur due to environmental forces such as weather, climate and tectonic movements; a deeper investigation into the ‘disaster’ displays other contributing forces. Human factors have a large, if not equal, contribution to the occurrance and outcome of such disasters (Pelling, 2001). As Pelling (2001) argues, there is both a physical and human dimension to ‘natural disasters’.

The extent to which the natural occurrence of a physical process, such as a flood or earthquake, impacts on society is constructed by that society, creating a ‘disaster’ as measured by a loss of life, structures and/or money. If a similar natural event was to occur in a place deserted of human life or contact, it would not be termed a ‘natural disaster’ but recognised as the Earth’s natural processes and physical movement. Conversely, these processes are potentially disasterous for the Earth’s plant and animal biodiversity; however the Earth manages to adapt and recover.

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It is the culture vs. nature separation and the uneven distribution of power in society that has contributed to the recent increase in natural disaster occurrence. There is a separation of society and nature where humans view nature as untamed and wild, leading to their attempt to control it. This has lead to the conservative response to managing disasters we currently use that focuses solely on the physical factors. (Reference the lecture here). Vulnerability due to power inequalities within society impacts the damage caused, and to whom, from these natural hazards.

The social construction of natural disasters results from power inequalities in society that leads to vulnerability of certain groups. Within society we construct categories, for example by class or gender, which are more exposed to risk (McLaughlin & Dietz, 2007). Class inequity results in an uneven distribution of wealth and access to resources where lower classed groups are more vulnerable to natural hazards. As the Marxist approach puts it, “underlying states of human marginalisation are conceived as the principle cause of disaster. ” (Pelling, 2001, p. 179).

This resource exclusion to particular categories of people within society creates their vulnerability to risk, and in turn disaster. McLaughlin and Dietz (2007) suggest there are three dimensions that make up vulnerability including exposure, sensitivity and resilience. An example displaying the vulnerability of lower classed social categories is in North Bihar, India, where floods have been managed through engineering works to create embankments. While the Government appears to be reducing the hazard, this has increased the vulnerability of the local people.

Soil fertility has decreased reducing agricultural success, dangerous flash floods are occurring due to embankment walls collapsing and communities have settled on apparently safe embankments and are now highly exposed (Pelling, 2001). The natural flood hazard was dangerous, but these works by society have created a natural disaster (Pelling, 2001). Power inequalities have created this disastrous situation where lower classes are at high exposure to floods due to profit hungry management bodies.

This technological approach is clearly failing but the Government and other managing groups make large profits off flood engineering works and have the power to decide how to control the issue (Pelling, 2001). This has resulted in creating possibilities for disaster from risk as these vulnerable, powerless groups are threatened by death, loss of housing and infrastructure as well as economic losses from agriculture due to flash floods on what appears to be safe embankments. They are highly exposed, sensitive to floods and have a low resilience capacity.

The inequality of power in this situation has constructed vulnerable social groups resulting in the occurrence of natural disasters. Society’s actions and decision making have created modern day disasters triggered by natural events, due to poor planning resulting in large scale death and damage. With educated planning we could avoid the disastrous consequences of many natural processes by refusing to settle in known danger spots. However, society’s choice of location and design has allowed the construction of what we term “natural” disasters, despite the anthropogenic causes behind their disastrous affects (Pelling, 2001).

Mike Davis (1995) explains how Los Angeles has socially constructed the “natural” disasters there by settling the city in a high risk area known for hazardous storms, fires, floods, drought and earthquakes. Despite historic evidence of environmental risks and recent research warning of massive earthquakes and a mega-drought, Los Angeles’ “market-driven urbanization has transgressed environmental common-sense” (Davis, 1995, p. 223). The city is located centrally to many known, natural hazards; and due to the high density population and urbanisation the effects of any one of these natural processes would easily create disaster.

One must also take into account how both local and national organisations will be able to assist and respond to the occurrence of disaster (Pelling, 2001). The inability of emergency crews to assist, for aid to be delivered and the aftermath of a disaster be managed, would be further human contribution to “natural” disaster. Metropolitan Los Angeles has again constructed a socially based capacity for disaster in its city through knowingly lacking the emergency capacity to respond to the forewarned earthquake clusters and mega-droughts/floods (Davis, 1995).

The economic response of the nation or area must also be examined as some small communities rely completely on crops that lie in vulnerable positions and can not regain their economic standing after such a natural event (for example island nations in the Pacific Ocean whom are hit by a tsunami and can not cope economically for years to come). This inability to respond economically can create disastrous results that are socially constructed by the nation’s dependence on such risky enterprises.

The ways in which society has formed itself in relation to the known risks associated with natural processes has shaped “natural disasters”. There are methods present to avoid such disastrous effects as well as research educating us on climatic trends etc, but poor management of our communities has lead to the social creation of these events. Recent years have seen a steady rise in the event of natural disasters and while there are many factors that could have impacted this, anthropogenic interactions causing acceleration in global warming is an undeniable factor (Pararas-Carayannis, 2003).

The human induced climate change that has started to occur has resulted in changing weather patterns that can increase the frequency and intensity of weather related disasters. This hastened warming of our atmosphere has occurred due to human impacts on the Earth including the wide-spread deforestation of the planet and the increased pollutant emissions from fossil fuels due to increased urbanisation and industrialisation (Pararas-Carayannis, 2003). The resultant impact of global warming on increasing the frequency and intensity of weather related disasters displays how they have a significant human cause.

Events such as storms and hurricanes have become more powerful and regular; and the human impact on these results can not be ignored. Again through society’s actions in relation to the planet, we have created disaster from natural processes. Los Angeles’ vulnerable location is at risk from accelerated global warming in that the likelihood of predicted drought and flooding is increased due to a greater frequency of the extreme conditions necessary to create these natural processes (Davis, 1995). Not only have we settled one of the largest cities in the world in harm’s way, our human actions are increasing the risk of this harm.

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How Are Natural Disasters Socially Constructed?. (2017, Apr 05). Retrieved from

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