The Politics of Disaster: The Philosophical Production of Risk and Responsibility
Newton, Summer Dawn
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Failed government responses to severe disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, have led to political repercussions for public institutions tasked with preventing, mitigating, and recovering from disasters. This dissertation investigates the emergence of the public expectation that governments have an obligation to manage their disordered effects. I look to early modern philosophers Hobbes and Machiavelli to explicate the philosophical production of risk and responsibility inherent in this political interpretation of disaster. A careful reading of Machiavelli and Hobbes articulates the reconfiguration of humanity’s relationship with nature, the state, and misfortune. Individuals were no longer to live in accordance with a harmonious nature, but transform it to better suit bodily interests. Machiavelli describes this capacity for transformation as virtue while Hobbes points to human artifice. Machiavellian virtue tamed variable fortune while Hobbesian artifice imposed predictability on disordered nature through the institution of the Leviathan. The resulting social contract arrangements of political authority established citizens’ duty of obedience and the sovereign’s responsibility for the welfare of its citizens, including during periods of disaster. Philosophy transitioned from the cultivation of the soul among the few to the universal provision of self-preservation. These philosophical developments coincided with shifts in explanatory models communities used to attribute causality in disasters. I present four models that assign causality to divine will, random chance or accident, nature, and human agency. In the twenty-first century, the human agency model predominates as human intervention into nature poses challenges in disentangling human activity from natural processes. Earlier historical periods deployed different explanatory models that necessitated non-political remedies, obligation, and blame. The 1755 Lisbon earthquake serves as a waypoint between the early modern and contemporary interpretations of disaster where authorities, victims, and observers debated its cause. In disaster research, human agency is examined in vulnerability analysis which views disasters as the intersection between hazards and ongoing political, economic, and social processes that produce patterns of vulnerability such as those apparent in the “man-made” catastrophe Hurricane Katrina. The very technologies and development strategies intended to increase predictability and control over nature increase the disordered effects inherent in disasters.