C. Mauch u.a. (Hrsg.): Natural Disasters, Cultural Responses

Natural Disasters, Cultural Responses. Case Studies toward a Global Environmental History

Mauch, Christof; Pfister, Christian
International Environmental History Publications of the German Historical Institute
Lanham, MD 2009: Lexington Books
382 S.
$ 90.00
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Verena Winiwarter, Zentrum für Umweltgeschichte, Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt

The thirteen chapters of this collection originate from a workshop held in 2004 at the German Historical Institute, then a major player in the development of environmental history, and edited by its then director together with one of the world’s foremost historians of climate, and for the past decade, a pioneer in the study of the history of disasters. The introduction is written by Christof Mauch, one chapter and the afterword by Christian Pfister. The volume covers a wide array of regions and approaches in a wide range of time.

This well-done collection broadens and deepens our understanding of the history of disasters considerably. The copy-editor has done a good job, and while some idiosyncrasies remain, most of the text is in good English. The book has two shortcomings, probably due more to the publisher than the editors. First, the book would have been even better if the editors had ventured to include an overview map and required contributors to include maps of their areas into each chapter. The envisaged global readership will either be able to place the Vosges mountains or Murshidabad, the province of Zhili or the Raritan River Basin, but probably not all four (they lie in France, Bengal, China and New Jersey, respectively). Environmental history happens at a defined place and time, and would have been different at another place, because the nature of the place is not just the backdrop of history, but one of its shaping agents, which is even one of the points emphasized by the collection. It would be great if publishers were to understand the need for – not just political, but in many cases, physical – maps to document this.

Edited collections are often the only possible outcome of a conference, and a conference is too often the only financial investment funders can be persuaded to put into a scholarly field. Contributors work for free, editors need an institutional background to cover basic editorial assistance, generally such projects are underfunded on all levels. This is an explanation, but should not be an excuse for sloppy indexing. While one must applaud the fact that the collection has an index, this index is far from perfect. Apart from typos (for example Nordstrad rather than Nordstrand, p. 373) which are particularly misfortunate when happening in toponyms, decisions about inclusions are inconsistent. Why is Philippe Joutard (p. 121) mentioned in the index, but not Pierre Nora, both whom are credited with coining the notion of ‘tyranny of memory’? Perhaps because Nora is referenced in Footnote 50 on p. 134 and Joutard is not? It would have been correct to give a reference for Joutard, anyway. Generally speaking, authors mentioned in footnotes (which are chapter endnotes, sadly enough), even if their names are mentioned in the text, need not be included in the index. Why is ‘resilience’ not in the index, while ‘risk pool’ and ‘riparian floods’ are? Making a good index is not a mechanical task, but requires knowledge about the significance of each toponym, name or notion. I point this out because at least some of the contributions of this volume will become standard texts to which readers shall return in the coming years. This book would be even more useful as a reference work if it had a better index.

The contents would certainly have deserved a good index and a few maps. Christof Mauch sets the stage with a reflected, culturalized view of disasters, pointing out that ‘… nature may supply the trigger for a disaster, but whether we call a natural occurrence a catastrophe depends largely on our perception of its impact on humans.” (p. 4.) This point is taken up in Christian Pfister’s introductory chapter which sketches the theoretical framework of disasters and the cultural responses to them. Thereafter, the volume consists of both source or place-centred case studies and national overviews. One of the latter is the contribution of René Favier and Anne-Marie Granet-Abisset, a somewhat self-reflexive overview about natural risks in France and how society dealt with them. Another one deals with Germany. Franz Mauelshagen gives an outline of river floods and storm floods on the North Sea coast, and offers three interpretative frameworks how to place waterborne disasters into the history of early modern and modern Germany: Institutions and nation-building, the complex relations between religion and disaster, and the moral economy each are sketched. Mauelshagen points out that communication, rather than being merely sensationalist, is necessary to activate the coping strategies of complex societies (p.67).

Cultures of coping are a recurrent theme of the volume. One general conclusion stemming from reading the book is that societies existing under particularly disaster-prone, dynamic circumstances developed coping mechanisms on all levels. Such mechanisms are found on the personal level, for example laughing and making jokes as a survival strategy when faced with the task of having to clear the mutilated bodies of one’s neighbours as Greg Bankoff points out in his study on the Philippines (p. 270), on the level of the community, where both Spanish and indigenous inhabitants co-operated in some instances in dam-building, such as reported for Mexico (p. 312), or on the level of a colonial state, as in the case of the sovereign granting a town to move from its erosion-prone river banks to a safer location, as detailed in Maria des Rosario Prieto’s analysis of the river floods of the Parana. China is a case in point for the role of the state in disaster management. Andrea Janku shows how defining disaster relief was for the Chinese emperor and his administration, even if measures proved inadequate. A magistrate could offer his life in retaliation for mismanagement, a symbolic action which, while it did not feed the hungry, allows us to see how intimately connected the entire idea of the state was with disaster relief in China.

The variety of sources and approaches shows the potential of historical disaster studies. Among the most unexpected are Islamic treatises on earthquakes from the Middle Ages. Anna Akasoy’s interpretation sheds light on an important aspect which ties in with Mauelshagens’s piece, that of the interpretative framework of disasters. Earthquakes, in a Muslim society, will always be interpreted within the ‘Koranic paradigms of divine punishment or warning and as omens of the Day of Judgement’ (p. 192), whereas the Aristotelian interpretation led to their scientific explanation. The second piece on the Muslim world was contributed by Otfried Weintritt. Using medieval chronicles, he discusses the floods of Baghdad. This contribution includes two instructive maps of the city. While a better chronological sorting of the reported instances might have made the piece an even better read, we read of astonishing emergency preparations. The adobe structures of Baghdad were easily destroyed by water, disintegrating and collapsing quickly. Rescue was possible on boats, or, in some cases, behind dykes. Watercraft were thus moored near the caliph’s palace, a safe place (p. 173). Like in many other floodplains, coping strategies had to take into account the expected, that is, the seasonal swelling of the river, and the unexpected, the catastrophic flood which would occur infrequently, but greatly surpass the usual dynamic.

Economic-turned-environmental historian Timo Myllyntaus’ piece on summer frost is a somewhat misleadingly titled fine analysis of the economic consequences of drought, rain and summer frost. Rather than beginning his article with an overview of historical disaster studies, a road taken by too many contributors, Myllyntaus laudably starts with an account of the geographical location of his case study, Finland.

Vinita Darmodaran vividly points to the colonial state as the culprit of breaking down traditional relief measures, destroying means of subsistence and solidifying what used to be flexible strategies of coping, for example by multicropping and reliance on gathering. A cautionary tale for those who believe in the merits of modernity, Darmodaran shows that suffering, hunger and death increased with the impact of the colonial administration in Bengal. Her study is the only piece in the volume which has been reprinted from a previous publication. As it is the only one on the Indian subcontinent, the decision to reprint is understandable.

Georgina Endfield and co-authors have chosen to show the potential of written sources for the investigation of climate-induced catastrophes in Mexico, in which the question of agrarian adaptation figures prominently. None of the contributions is without relevance to our understanding of the current situation, but Bernard Thaithe’s paper stands out in showing the connections between colonialism and humanitarian action using the Algerian famine of 1866-1870 as his case study. He also points to the power of the individual. Charles de Lavigerie, leader of the Catholic Church of North Africa, by combining smartness, devotion and perseverance, singlehandedly organized the first humanitarian aid from France to Algeria, with all ensuing paradoxes still known about aid today.

Several of the chapters briefly sketch their own conceptual models of how to understand, categorize and narrate disasters. The last piece of the book, written by a geographer, James K. Mitchell, deals with 20th century New Jersey. The author concludes that the inclusion of long-term studies into the development of policies is merited because larger extremes would then become visible. This point is made clear throughout the book and also in the afterword by Pfister: Environmental historians dealing with disaster have a message to tell to scientists studying current climate change. An interdisciplinary conference to follow-up on this one and discuss the findings with scientists would be great. Perhaps the editors could then also include Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and a country with strong volcanism such as Italy or Iceland, in addition to the Philippines. It is to be hoped that scientists will at least read the book.

Finally, the collection shows, probably unintentionally, how segregated European historiography is. Just one example: The article on society and natural risks in France from 1500-2000 quotes only literature in French, and were it not for francophone Switzerland, all literature would come from France. The book is an important stepping stone in the globalization of environmental history. It also shows how far the way to an integrated view still is.

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