Can Disasters Be Managed?

A forest burning.

In his new book All Is Well: Catastrophe and the Making of the Normal State, Prof. Saptarishi Bandopadhyay argues that “disaster management” is based on a flawed understanding of what disasters actually are and their underlying causes.

Disasters are all around us. We see them as exceptional occurrences that destroy human life, property and resources. And for centuries, people have looked to political authorities to offer protection from disasters and provide relief in their aftermath. Yet recent events — the COVID-19 pandemic and a steady onslaught of storms, floods and forest fires — have shown that modern states and intergovernmental institutions frequently fail to meet these expectations. Worse, world leaders routinely ignore evidence that catastrophic climate change is already unfolding and indeed accelerating. 

What precisely is a disaster? Who determines when one has occurred, and when it has ended? And what is the relationship between disasters and modern states that promise to “manage” them? In All Is WellCatastrophe and the Making of the Normal State (Oxford University Press, 2022), Prof. Saptarishi Bandopadhyay, a Nathanson Centre scholar and a past member of the Centre’s executive committee, argues that there is no such thing as a disaster outside of the rituals of legal, administrative and scientific contestation through which such occurrences are morally distinguished from the rhythms of everyday life. Disasters, Prof. Bandopadhyay suggests, 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, and 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 new forms of political authority. The book presents three case studies: the Marseille plague of 1720, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and the Bengal famine of 1770. As far back as the 18th century, aspiring rulers understood disasters to be occasions for testing their ambitions as they exchanged divine authority for the supremacy of natural rights, Enlightenment ideals and colonial rule. Prof. Bandopadhyay examines these catastrophe responses, showing how the outcomes they produced and their supporting beliefs have led in the present day to deeply inequitable 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 that civilization’s survival depends on reckoning with this complicated past.