Social Constructions and Culture in the ’16 ENVS Symposium

While I attended the “Perspectives in Environmental Movements” event, what really captivated me was the panel “Unnatural Disasters”.  Perspectives in Environmental Movements gave a general, comprehensible explanation of environmental justice, and then moved into the eco-theology of African Americans and the work of black methodists against environmental justice.  This was then followed by a discussion on what the experiences of environmental injustice are for Native Americans, specifically in regards to Native American law.  While these are engaging and significant topics, the ideas were not new to me as an ENVS student. Unnatural disasters rewarded me with less-traditional approaches to the varying amount vulnerability of different communities to ‘environmental’ hazards

I had no idea what unnatural disasters would refer to.  I presumed that the speakers might refer to disasters caused by plants and factories, or pipe leaks.  Instead I was confronted with a discussion on the perspectives of what disasters are to different cultures and the flawed term “natural” disasters.  The speakers talked about how disasters cannot be considered natural; they are only disasters because of human perceptions and activity.  Forest fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc. are by themselves just natural phenomena, and the disaster occurs when humans are not prepared with the proper knowledge, tools and infrastructure to handle them.  This heavily relates to the idea of vulnerability of different people and why disasters seem to have a higher impact in developing countries and poorer areas.

The overarching theme of the event was that disasters are a social construction, an idea discussed a lot in ENVS 160, but in a different context.  In ENVS and sociology we most often talk about social constructions as the ideas and norms humans believe to be truth that are not natural in anyway, but instead a product of culture and part of discourse.  Disasters, are socially constructed in the more literal sense, of caused by society.  Humans have caused the disaster by the way they live and their lack of planning for such an event.  However, the term “natural disaster” can certainly be seen as a social construction in the more traditional sense.  The speakers repeatedly pointed out the habit of humans to point fingers at others when a problem arises.  By calling a disaster natural, we entirely take the blame off ourselves as humans, and say it is nature’s fault that catastrophe has fallen upon us. We use the term to decide the disasters is in no way our own doing.

The second speaker, Andrew Bernstein caught my attention with the historical example he used to elaborate the main points of the event.  Bernstein took us back to Nara and Heian Japan around the 9th century, when Mt. Fuji was highly active.  When Fuji erupted, the Heian elites, who were out of harm’s immediate way, were not concerned with deaths and physical destruction from eruption.  Instead, they were concerned about the damage done to the main road that connected east and west Japan that was important for trade, and in a less rational way that the volcano eruption was the omen of an epidemic.  To the Japanese elite, epidemics were a real concern. They lived in the capital where all roads lead to, there was a larger conglomerate of people and disease easily spread, and so the real disaster to them was not the immediate damage.

I was fascinated by the context of Bernstein’s speech, particularly, because I was able to make connections to what I knew about Nara/Heian divination practices from Early East Asian Art History.  Oracle bone divinations – heating bones or turtle shells until they crack and then reading the cracks and sounds – in ancient East Asian cultures were largely a way for the rulers to prove their land and city were thriving, to ease their people and prove they were having a good reign.  The elite in Heian performed numerous divinations to interpret what the volcano eruption was telling them, how they should act, and what the Fuji god wanted.  If the divinations were negative and they were not getting positive readings, they could not prove their city was stable and in good hands, and this to them was disastrous.  

Aside from being a stimulating new way to think about this Period in Japan, the religious context also exemplified the dangers of assuming how people in a certain time and place will perceive/react to disasters.  The last speaker, Steven Bullock talked about his work preparing different communities, particularly poor communities with higher percentages of racial minorities, for disasters.  Bullock elaborated on how important it was to understand what different people in different neighborhoods perceived as risks when disasters struck and what support systems they needed.  In order for a community to be resilient, he had to teach them how to prepare for disasters in a way that suited their personal needs.  The reality that there is extensive diversity in disaster perceptions validates the overall theme that disasters are social constructions.