CSPS Session at RGS-IBG | 28/29-08-2019 | Calamitous ‘events’? Exploring perceptions of disaster timeframes | Convenors: Robert Coates and Jeroen Warner

CSPS Session at  The 2019  Royal Geographical Society Annual International Conference (RGS-IBG) | 28/29-08-2019 | Calamitous ‘events’? Exploring perceptions of disaster timeframes | Convenors: Robert Coates and Jeroen Warner

Notions of temporality lie at the heart of the idea of disaster, with lived ‘events’ underpinned by the existential experience of trauma or abnormality across a defined human population (Perry, 2007; Quarantelli, 1985). Yet what constitutes such a (disaster) event remains deeply problematic, with allegations the event has even been ‘dissolved’ in analysis (Fassin and Vasquez, 2005). The impact of hazards like storms, tsunamis or even chemical leaks can most clearly be located in a particular time and space, yet none of these automatically results in a disaster or in a shared traumatic memory. Safeguards are frequently put in place to prevent hazards turning into disasters, while distinct cultural developments have sometimes equipped people with the means to familiarise hazards (or even traumas) to the point of avoiding them embedding in memory (Kruger et al., 2015).

Disasters are always interpreted through social experience in specific social time (Hoffman and Oliver-Smith, 2002). Nonetheless, notions of disasters as unexpected, negative, traumatic events are being eroded from multiple sides. Disasters have been discussed variously as (‘beautiful’) focusing events (Lowry, 2006), as forcing breakthroughs in ‘disaster diplomacy’ (Kelman, 2012), as potentially changing the social contract (Pelling and Dill, 2010), or as punctuating an equilibrium (Baumgartner and Jones, 1993). Approaches focussed on adaptive management and social-ecological resilience (Renn, 2008) tend to see disaster events as part of cyclical or functional processes involving the disruption and restoration of normative stability, and as such undercut subjective ‘meaning’ and ‘memory’ among individuals and communities, just as they demote questions of social and political power.

Conversely (or in parallel), vulnerability analyses go a long way toward explaining the unequal experience of hazard impacts, and thus the kinds of social and spatial conditions that actually produce a disaster. Chronic and ongoing vulnerability can be a disaster in the making, long before the earth shakes – in this sense all disasters are ‘slow-onset’ (Kelman, 2018). From this perspective the focus on discrete shocks or events, rooted in mysterious ‘outside’ forces, side-track us from the development issues that count. From Oliver-Smith’s (2012) Peruvian ‘500-year earthquake’ to Wisner et al.’s (2004) build-up of ‘pressure’, and onwards to the creation of increasingly hazardous and uneven planetary space under capitalist urbanization (Braun, 2014; Brenner, 2013), the idea of what constitutes the event itself is dissipating under the weight of socio-spatial production. ‘Eventfulness’ can be an abstraction based around late liberal governance or governmentality; the internalised strategy of blaming nature an integral part of what sustains everyday marginality as a ‘non-event’ (Povinelli, 2011). From geophysical hazards to industrial pollution, questioning the diffusion of knowledge of hazardous environments speaks to the manipulation of social subjectivities and the limitations of perceptions of existential experience (Auyero and Swistun, 2009).

This session explores spatial and temporal contexts and limits surrounding disaster events, or as the case may be, disaster non-events. The contributions explore these ideas alongside disaster case studies, leading to productive theoretical dialogue.

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