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Response to Review no. 809

Michael Baillie’s review of my book The End is Nigh. A History of Natural Disasters is so packed with misconceptions and odd statements that I hardly know how to begin this reply. Everything about my books seems to annoy him. Even the title and the short text on the dust jacket are attacked in his 4000 word long tirade. Perhaps I did write a useless book. Perhaps it could have been structured better. However, I also know that reviewers sometimes really miss the point for some reason. A common mistake is to write a review based on the book you were hoping for, but didn’t get. ‘The End is Nigh fails to deliver much of what at least this reviewer was hoping for’, as Baillie himself admits. Why not give the reader insight to what the book is really about? I will leave it to you as a reader to judge my book, but if you have read Baillie’s review I think it’s necessary to point out why you should bother to read it at all. Actually, the only statement about the book that can be interpreted as positive in Baillie’s review is ‘There is plenty of interesting detail …’ in the chapter about the 1755 Lisbon disaster. Here are four more reasons to read it:

  1. The End is Nigh is one of the few cross-disciplinary popular science books about natural disasters, and goes beyond the usual hazard-focussed approach to the topic. It is thoroughly researched and referenced.
  2. It treats the history of mentalities and ideas relevant for disasters, including the much-neglected topic of religious reactions to disasters.
  3. The book covers all the main types of natural disasters, with examples from different time epochs and cultures.
  4. It represents an analysis of a phenomenon that affects several hundred million people every year, and is written in an accessible style.

The comments I have to Baillie’s review are organized according to the key issues that his review raises, namely: disasters, history, and God; global warming and credibility; lack of perspective; and why bother to write cross-disciplinary popular science. Some other issues are discussed in endnote (1).

Disasters, history, and God

To any reader of ‘The End is Nigh’, it should be obvious that it does not represent a catalogue of disasters sorted according to the number of dead with time. My perspective in the book is to investigate the effects and consequences of natural disasters for how people think about risk and nature, and how societies are affected by disasters. One of the approaches I have used is to study the history of ideas and mentalities. This is particularly interesting to me as a geologist, as it shows that perceptions of Nature are indeed shaped by cultural factors. Another interesting question is whether natural forces (volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, etc) may influence how we think about nature and our culture. This is obviously an approach that Professor Emeritus Baillie, a dendrochronologist (i.e., specialist on dating tree-rings), does not appreciate. It is also clear that Baillie doesn’t like my cross-disciplinary approach. He wants more geology: ‘You would expect the author, as a geologist, to take a more scientific stance’, and he is even bold enough to write that ‘This is where the book continues to annoy…’. But my book is not about natural hazards. The core topic of my book is instead how hazards and vulnerability together result in natural disasters, although Baillie shows again and again that he doesn’t get the point: ‘Personally I would have defined “natural disasters” as “disasters caused by natural forces over which humans have no control”’, and when commenting on Hurricane Katrina: ‘In a history of natural disasters I find it hard to see why Katrina is mentioned at all. Only about 3000 people died and it could be argued that all the deaths were due to human failures, after all the city could have been evacuated, given the warnings’.

When researching for my book, I discovered to my surprise that historians are not particularly interested in natural disasters or their consequences. This is a second reason why I have focussed on the history of ideas and mentalities. This becomes clear if you search history books for information about natural disasters, let’s say in Norway. Not a single history book about Norway published during the 20th century mentions or discusses any of the main disasters in the context of national history (to my knowledge), even though the disasters were major events reported in the press throughout the country for weeks afterwards. A possible reason for this is the common belief that natural disasters are purely due to the forces of nature. Within this paradigm, natural disaster studies fall under the domain of the natural sciences, especially geology. Another reason could be that historians tend to focus on single disasters.(2) Given the mentioned limitations in the availability of research on disasters, and the fact that I’m not an historian myself, I had to focus on disasters that actually have been studied with the perspective that I’m interested in. As many of the examples I use are from the 20th century, I get criticised for not having more material from time periods closer to Baillie’s own interest: ‘As the book is titled as a history I was hoping that attention would shift back in time … It would seem that there is no place for time depth in a book on the history of natural disasters’.

In the natural science paradigm (i.e. hazard research) of disasters that dominated until recently, neither socially constructed vulnerability nor religious attitudes towards disasters were treated seriously. One of the pioneers of disaster research, Kenneth Hewitt, pointed out in the early 1980s in the seminal work Interpretations of Calamity (3) that there is no space for God in the technocratic approach to hazard research. This is one reason why the religious attitudes of affected people were treated as superstition and curiosities by those studying disasters. Even today, religious attitudes are mostly encountered only in newspapers when reading interviews of people hit by disasters. My reason for making this a central topic of the book is that religious attitudes are important indicators of how disasters affect people. It was not only in the 1700s that natural disasters shook the religious and intellectual foundations of those affected or those that otherwise heard about the disasters. This is equally important today in societies where religion is a natural part of people’s lives, be it in Muslim of Christian societies. Throughout his review, Baillie tries to ridicule and discredit me for the focus on religious attitudes and mentalities. It all reminds me of the saying about a specific character reading the bible.

Global warming and credibility

Baillie’s statement that ‘Of course, Katrina is in there because it just might be a symptom of “climate change”’ is close to unbelievable. It’s there because it’s a recent example of how natural forces and social factors together create natural disasters. It’s there because it showed how a disaster shook the world’s most powerful state in its foundations. It’s there because it’s probably the most commented natural disaster ever.(4)

Baillie’s comments on Hurricane Katrina (see above) leads us to the topic of global warming. When discussing natural disasters and global warming, I use the results and conclusions of the IPCC. If Baillie has a problem with that, he should be more explicit about it. I don’t find it very relevant if he, or readers of the ‘climate sceptic’ kind, disagree. The statements in my book about global warming and disasters are not controversial. Still, he uses the topic of global warming to question my credibility: ‘But, of course, Svensen only mentioned the ultimate ice-age threat to dismiss it and move to the issue of global warming. Here he is really out of his depth’. Admittedly, there is a typo in the book that Baillie points out in the chapter about heat waves in Europe (a 2003 that became 2006), but this has nothing to do whatsoever with my credibility on the subject of global warming. Baillie should know that.

Lack of perspective

If you enjoy reading academic criticism, I guess Baillie’s review is kind of entertaining. Unfortunately, he crosses the boundary to the distasteful several times, as illustrated by the following statements:

We are told about disasters – apparently ‘between one and two natural disasters occur on the earth every day’ (p. 14) – but either statements like this make us bristle or their interpretation leaves us wanting to argue.

At last the book is becoming interesting because we can now begin to see the lack of perspective. For example, each year in Britain 3000 people die on the roads out of a population of 60 million; that is one death in 20,000. So natural disasters are not even doing as well as road users.

I wonder if Svensen paused to ask himself just how many people die each year on the planet as a whole? If he had done he would have discovered that for every person who dies in a ‘natural disaster’ more than 5000 die from some other cause, be it age, disease or malnutrition.

To take just one example from the introduction; why are the losses of human life in natural disasters in recent years classed as incomprehensible? In fact they are completely comprehensible; history tells us that major natural disasters tend to kill a lot of people’.

I don’t know why Baillie makes these comments. Is it due to misanthropy? Or is he trying to question why I argue that natural disasters are important? Well, the book is actually about natural disasters, thus the number of people that die annually in either technological or social disasters, or by any other cause for that matter, is not very relevant. The numbers I quote in the book are real (or at least the best estimates available) and I don’t think I treat them in an alarmist or a sensationalist way. I do however find it very disturbing that more than 2.5 million people have died as a consequence of natural disasters since I was born (1970). The fact that most of the victims were poor people in developing countries makes Baillie’s comments pretty grim.

Why bother to write cross-disciplinary popular science?

A colleague of mine, which spends most of his time writing scientific papers, once asked me why I wanted to spending my spare time writing a popular science book when it doesn’t give much credit in academia. I replied that I enjoy writing. Sometimes it can be a real relief to free yourself from the strict academic language and the pre-defined outline of a scientific paper. You can use metaphors, play with the language, and use plot and narrative structures of the fictional kind. Facts and a good story, hand in hand. But this is not the only reason I like writing popular science. It’s important to present academic insight to a broader audience, and to try to bridge the still existing abyss between the ‘two cultures’. Very few overview books about natural disasters share this perspective, which is the reason why I wrote the book in the first place. The most disappointing part about Baillie’s review is his complete ignorance about these issues. My cross-disciplinary approach only seems to annoy him. This is strange as he has published several cross-disciplinary books himself. And the only comment on the language and the writing is given when he describes my chapter headings as ‘opaque’. The chapters about my own experiences with geology and hazards from West Africa are symptomatically never even mentioned.

Final remarks

Baillie ends the review with this: ‘The book fails to suggest how we might solve the issue of blaming deities and it fails to identify the fundamental factor in the modern world, namely that it is exponential population growth that forces more people to live at increased risk in vulnerable areas’. When it comes to deities, they have always been part of both Muslim and Christian explanations for why natural disasters occur. This is not an issue to solve, but a fact to accept. Finally, when bringing up the topic of risk and vulnerability, Baillie is at last onto something. Risk and vulnerability is what differs between rich and poor countries. This is why social factors are so important for understanding disasters in poor or socially stratified countries. Unfortunately, I don’t have the solution on how to deal with the continuing population growth or how to make policies that will lead 1-2 billion people out of poverty and slums. I truly wish I had.

Notes

  1. a) Baillie makes a big deal out of what he claims to be a wrongly dated plague, ‘The environmental downturn and plague at the time of Justinian is wrongly dated to AD 530 (p. 186).’ Baillie deserves credit for bringing this up, as the correct age should be AD 535–6 – but not AD 540 as he writes. The age given on page 186 of my book is quoted from David Keys’ book Catastrophe. Since this is obvious when reading my text, perhaps Baillie got blinded by his own research on the AD 540 event?

    b) Baillie: ‘Unfortunately there is only a brief mention of the distant physical effects of the Lisbon earthquake’. Why is this unfortunate? This is not a central topic of the book, and the physical event itself is so well known that seiches and other distant phenomena won’t add significantly to the understanding of it. That the reactions to the disaster in Northern Europe could have been amplified by local experiences of the distal effects, are moreover covered by my examples from Norway (which have never previously been mentioned in books about the 1755 event). The ‘flames’ from Norway were reported from a 330 meter deep lake, which makes melting of gas hydrates an unlikely cause. Moreover, methane migration through water will not lead to self ignition of the methane. This may happen during violent mud volcano eruptions where high eruption velocities and vent friction ignites it.

    c) Baillie: ‘This is then followed by a statement sufficiently bizarre to suggest the text was not adequately proofed. Talking of Europe since 1970, it states: ‘A total of 45 per cent of all deaths have been caused by natural hazards’ (p. 157). I very much doubt Svensen meant to write that! Maybe something got lost in translation’. If Baillie had cared to cite the whole sentence (OK, I admit that it’s not a great sentence, but nothing got lost in translation), the reader would have seen that the 45 per cent refer to deaths induced by hazards that ‘… may possibly increase in extent in the event of climate changes’ (p. 157).

    d) ‘It makes no attempt to define or categorize natural disasters; the fate of a few Norwegians gets as much coverage as events that killed millions’. The definition is actually given in the introduction (p. 14), and the ‘few Norwegians’ that have perished in natural disasters are included for several reasons. First, natural disasters in Norway have never previously been reviewed or put in a wider context. Since I come from Norway, this seemed like a good opportunity to do so. Second, why should disasters in Norway be of lesser interest to the reader than disasters in other countries? Third, these disasters provide a striking example of how the perception of disasters and risk is connected to the history of the formation of the national state and ideas about nature and natural forces. Back to (1)

  2. Ted Steinberg, ‘The secret history of natural disaster’, Environmental Hazards, 3 (2001), 31–5. Back to (2)
  3. Kenneth Hewitt, Interpretations of Calamity: From the Viewpoint of Human Ecology (London, 1983). Back to (3)
  4. A search on ‘Hurricane Katrina’ on Amazon.com will give you a selection of books that could keep you busy reading for years. See also http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/ for many interesting social science perspectives on the disaster. Back to (4)