Language matters: Dangers of the “natural disaster” misnomer

Despite unmistakable human complicity in disasters, the idea that disasters are simply part of the natural state of affairs remains pervasive. This is reflected in the frequent use of the expression “natural disaster”. This paper examines International non-governmental organisations' (INGOs) and Intergovernmental organisations' (IGOs) literature that utilises the expression “natural disaster”. The authors look at how the expression is used, discuss the reasons why it is problematic and ultimately argue that by continuously blaming and putting the responsibility for failures of development on “nature”, we – as a society – fail to hold accountable those who create disaster risk. 

Section 2 gives an overview of the key terminology that emphasises that disasters are socially produced. Section 3 describes methodology, and is followed by Section 4, in which the results of the analysis are presented. Section 5 brings the discussion together by arguing that risk is created in many ways but ultimately it is the predatory socio-economic system that characterises the current status quo – a status quo that thrives on race, class and gender based discrimination – that both drives the creation of risk and puts down any attempts to overturn its dominance. In the conclusion the authors argue that the language currently being used, particularly the “natural disaster” expression, is not helping to address root causes of disasters. Arguably it is hurting the cause. 

This paper is a contribution to the 2019 edition of the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR 2019).

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