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Disasters and History: The Vulnerability and Resilience of Past Societies

Author(s):van Bavel, Bas
Curtis, Daniel R.
Dijkman, Jessica
Hannaford, Matthew
de Keyzer, Maika
van Onacker, Eline
Soens, Tim
Reviewer(s):Noy, Ilan

Published by EH.Net (July 2022).

Bas van Bavel, Daniel R. Curtis, Jessica Dijkman, Matthew Hannaford, Maïka de Keyzer, Eline van Onacker, and Tim Soens. Disasters and History: The Vulnerability and Resilience of Past Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. x + 231 pp. $29.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-1108477178.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Ilan Noy, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.


History’s path is strewn with disasters, and at least this reader did not require any convincing that the history of disasters and disasters’ impact on history are both worthy topics of a book-length investigation. Van Bavel, Curtis, Dijkman, Hannaford, de Keyzer, van Onacker, and Soens collaborated in writing a book that aims to provide a comprehensive description of the insights learnt from investigating the global history of disasters. And, indeed, the book delivers on this promise, and provides the interested reader with many nuggets of insights and ideas to ponder. The authors, a group of mostly historians and sociologists from the Low Countries, cover a long time span (from the Pre-Christian Mediterranean Basin to the West Africa Ebola epidemic of 2014), a varied geographic terrain, and several types of mostly sudden-onset disasters. They further elucidate on how historical developments are both catalysts for disasters, shape their impacts and their immediate aftermath, and are also affected by disasters in the long term, throughout a sometimes decades-long recovery process.

I first approvingly note that the authors managed to make the book “open access.” The book is available as a PDF file, for free, on the publisher’s website (Cambridge University Press). Given the primacy of disaster concerns in many places — including in very disadvantaged ones — it is important that this book be made available to anyone who might benefit from its insights. And, indeed, it does provide insights that can be beneficial to the puzzled policymaker who is tasked with reducing disaster risk, improving disaster risk management or the post-disaster emergency phase, or with designing policies for long-term community recovery.

The 1755 Lisbon earthquake-fire-tsunami disaster was perhaps the first modern disaster — one about which a lot of data were collected, and which was international in its scope. It is the prototypical event the authors aim to learn from and indeed describe. Many of the themes that constantly crop up – for example the role of inequality in shaping the impact, the immediate response, the longer-term recovery, and the potential for disasters to change governance and legal institutions – were all clearly present in the 1755 event. However, instead of vertiginously ranging across space and time and picking examples from these diverse places and time periods, the book could have benefitted from diving into a few example events and describing them more thoroughly. History, after all, is often hidden in the details.

As the authors note, “disasters can be understood and explained only by placing them in their social, economic, political, and cultural contexts.” This would be the conventional historical argument. At the same time, they also believe in the external validity of the lessons one can learn from past disasters to inform our behaviour before, during, and after the disasters that are destined to occur.  As an economist, I share this aspiration for external validity. Determined to learn global contemporary lessons from very specific circumstances, however, the authors sometimes stray too aggressively in that direction (for example, in their discussion about unequal mortality burdens and the deaths of clergy in a 1693 earthquake in Sicily which toppled many churches). But these are quibbles, and overall, the book manages to provide many insights, based on a lot of examples.

Many of the terms used by the authors — e.g., vulnerability, resilience, adaptation, mitigation, exposure, and even disaster — have multiple definitions, which often diverge across the various disciplines that study disasters. For example, economists (my tribe) and historians do not define resilience in the same way, and seismic engineers define this term differently from either. As such, I think it is incumbent on us to try and speak in the same language, rather than hoping others will grasp our own. The authors themselves seem to define some terms differently across chapters, and that may further confuse the reader.

Fortunately, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) have produced simple glossaries, defining many of these contentious terms. We ought to start using them. Economists frequently pay little attention to such heated terminological disagreements, and largely adopt the view that what looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and is understood by most people to be a duck, should be called a duck. It is perhaps regrettable that the authors are too polite and end up discussing these terminological disagreements at length. They thus miss several opportunities to move us away from rather pointless disagreements and toward a consensus shaped by the IPCC and UNDRR.

One other quibble is that most of the history they cover focuses on high-income countries and their travails (with a specific and understandable focus on the Low Countries). Disasters, however, are more consequential in other parts of the world, parts which are poorly served by limited historical scholarship and hence by the authors themselves. Clearly, we need to do better as the most difficult challenges for disaster risk management are in those parts of the world we know least about. The authors readily acknowledge this lacuna, but as happens only too frequently, they are unable or unwilling to fill in what is lacking.

What is mainly lacking for me, as an economist, is quantifications. The authors describe myriad ways in which disaster dynamics are shaped by culture, by institutions, by economic structures, and by other mechanisms, but they almost never try to describe the magnitude of these channels, or indeed determine which ones are more important. Even when discussing the main global database that measures disaster impacts (EMDAT — collected by a research centre at the University of Louvain), they inaccurately define the criteria it uses (p. 63) and do not mention the quantifications it contains.

Finally, the book was published in 2020, but it was written before a new coronavirus variant somehow escaped its zoonotic host and changed our thinking about the possible ways in which epidemics could evolve and affect us. Indeed, our assessments as to which countries are more resilient to this type of disaster shock proved completely off the mark; unexpectedly, countries like Vietnam or Taiwan (or my own country, New Zealand) proved to be much more successful in handling the pandemic than the United States, the United Kingdom, or indeed all the rest of Europe. Had we done more historical research, on the 1918 Influenza pandemic for example, would we have been able to predict that?

I do hope that the authors, having observed the last three years since they finished writing this book, are now hard at work on a sequel, one that tries to take all the insights learned from historical disasters, and especially from past epidemics, and consider them in reference to the very diverse local experiences that we have all observed and lived through since COVID-19 emerged.


Ilan Noy is the Chair in the Economics of Disasters and Climate Change, at Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington. He is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Economics of Disasters and Climate Change and recently authored (with Tom Uher) “Four New Horsemen of an Apocalypse? Solar Flares, Super-volcanoes, Pandemics, and Artificial Intelligence” in that journal.

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Environment, Climate, and Disasters
Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative