Natural Disaster

There is a redundancy in the expression “natural disaster,” a double disavowal. “Disaster”: “bad star,” circuitously, through the Italians and the French, from the Greeks and Romans, for whom fate was written in the stars. Nature spoke in the voice of the gods; expertise in reading omens allowed anticipation, maybe even placation, but human influence was secondary. Human agency was never fully absent from these events. They might be punishments for the commission or omission of a deed—for a violation, intentional or otherwise. But the event itself—the overly strong winds or the lack thereof, the flood or fire, the earthquake or drought, a destruction or a withholding of necessities or bounties—bespoke a higher agent and the expression of displeasure.

As the definition of “disaster” moved away from its etymology, “natural” kept the emphasis on causes of the calamitous event that superseded human agency and responsibility: the devastation of a tsunami …

This essay may be found on page 148 of the printed volume.

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