All Is Well: Catastrophe and the Making of the Normal State

All Is Well: Catastrophe and the Making of the Normal State (Oxford University Press, 2022)
Pp. 320, US$ 74 (ISBN-10: 0197579191)

The first book to conceptualize “disaster management” as an active historical and global struggle that creates disasters and political authorities Challenges the mainstream belief that the causes of disaster can be rationally distinguished from solutions

Includes case studies of the Marseille plague (1720), the Lisbon earthquake (1755) and the Bengal famine (1770)—three historic disasters that have not been examined together

Bring together social sciences research with legal and environmental history, and postcolonial international law analysis

Summary (excerpts: Google Books)

Disasters are all around us. In everyday parlance, disasters are understood as exceptional occurrences that destroy human life, property, and resources. For centuries, people have looked to political authorities for protection from disasters and for relief in the aftermath. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic and an endless torrent of storms, floods, and forest fires have shown that modern states and intergovernmental institutions frequently fail this burden. Worse, world leaders routinely ignore evidence that accelerated climate change is an already-rolling planetary catastrophe. So, what is a “disaster”? Who determines when and why a disaster has occurred or ceased? And what is the relationship between such occurrences and modern states who promise to “manage” them?

In All Is Well, Saptarishi Bandopadhyay argues that there is no such thing as a “disaster” outside of rituals of legal, administrative, and scientific contestation through which such occurrences are morally distinguished from the rhythms of everyday life. Disasters, Bandopadhyay asserts, are artifacts of “normal” rule. They result from the same, mundane strategies of knowledge-making and violence by which authorities, experts, and lay people struggle to develop state-like power, to define and defend the social order.

Challenging traditional narratives, All Is Well looks at “disaster management” as a historical process that produces both catastrophes and political authorities. To do so, Bandopadhyay draws on three case studies: the Marseille plague of 1720, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and the Bengal famine of 1770. As far back as the eighteenth century, aspiring rulers understood disasters to be occasions for testing their state-like ambitions as they swapped divine authority for the supremacy of natural rights, Enlightenment ideals, and colonial rule. Bandopadhyay examines these exercises in catastrophe conservation and state formation and shows how the underlying beliefs and resulting insights underwrite sophisticated but deeply inequitable present-day norms and practices of global governance. He concludes that climate change, and the national and international authorities designed to fight it, are products of three centuries of disaster management, and civilizational survival depends on reckoning with this past.

Advance Reviews

“A thought-provoking and somewhat audacious book that challenges our notions about the very foundations of state power and its historic role in disaster management. Far from saving people from nature’s fury, Bandopadhyay argues that disasters provide a way for state power to renew itself. Masterfully drawing on eighteenth century examples from France, Portugal, and India to support his case, the author admonishes us to look more closely at how the world around us is governed. A compelling read.” — Greg Bankoff, Professor Emeritus of Environmental History, University of Hull

“Ironically titled, All Is Well provides a wide-ranging, timely critique of the world of disasters. Bandopadhyay acknowledges earthquakes, floods, and plagues are real and horrific enough. However, he shows ‘disasters’ to be socially constructed, mainly through official discourses that serve state power. He also finds such awareness largely absent from mainstream disaster work, where the primacy of ‘the government’ and ‘the international community’ is rarely questioned. In our own time, these hegemonic strategies are shown to support liberal, international, and ecological initiatives. In the face of existential insecurity and frightful losses, they are seen to ‘normalize’ gross economic and social disparities, and ecological destruction.” — Kenneth Hewitt, Professor Emeritus of Geography and Environmental Studies, Wilfrid Laurier University

“An ambitious and timely intervention into a pressing set of concerns, questions, and issues. By combining a longue dur e approach with a focus on writing a ‘history of the present’, Bandopadhyay produces original insights of cross-cultural significance. Those insights will have application to the numerous projects which will surely emerge to rebuild states, societies, economies, and systems in the wake of the current pandemic.” — Sundhya Pahuja, Director of the Institute for International Law and the Humanities, Melbourne Law School

Author information
Saptarishi Bandopadhyay is an Assistant Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University. He has followed and engaged disaster management efforts in India, in the borderlands between India, Pakistan, and China, and in the Philippines. He has learned from and advised officials and civil society in India, Thailand, the Philippines, and Canada and has published widely on disaster risk, international law, and related areas. Saptarishi has received research and advocacy grants and fellowships from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Harvard University, the Public International Law and Policy Group, the Center for International Environmental Law, Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, York University’s Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, and the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet & Society, among other institutions.