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Disaster by Choice - Ilan Kelman ***

At the heart of Ilan Kelman's book is a striking claim - 'natural' disasters don't really exist. Instead, it's suggested, there are natural hazards and we choose by our actions (or often inactions) whether or not to turn these into disasters.

The book starts really well with a gripping description of the Haiti earthquake and its aftermath. Kelman makes a good job of telling the story and using it to powerful effect. He goes on to effectively describe some of the possible natural hazards that can lead to disasters, this time focusing his story on the mundane-seeming protection of Canvey Island from the Thames and on Australian bushfires (in a book written before 2019's devastating fires). We see how a combination of economics, politics and the human ability to not think to clearly about the future encourages a repeated failure to learn the lessons of past events.

This is no cold, scientific assessment - Kelman does not prevent emotional language from entering his arguments. And that's fine. But about half way through the book, things seem to get rather bogged down. By now we have a good understanding of why some individuals and communities are better prepared than others, but then we first get a rather odd deviation in a discussion of gender and identity politics before the book moves on to solutions - perhaps because they are so difficult, at this stage Kelman seems to lose momentum and flounders about a little. We get yet more examples, where we've had enough of these and want to get on to the practicalities. And the approach to fixing things seems to be just to say 'we all have responsibilities', which isn't a great way to make anything happen.

A book of two halves, then. A great opening deserving of at least four stars - and the idea that we bring disasters on ourselves rather than nature imposing them is a powerful one - but as a book, Disaster by Choice loses its impetus part way through.

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Review by Brian Clegg


  1. A dozen scientific citations on the importance of gender and identity politics for dealing with disasters:
    1. Ahmad, A. 2018. Conceptualizing Disasters from a Gender Perspective. Pages 105-117 in D. O’MathĂșna, V. Dranseika, and B. Gordijn, eds., Disasters: Core Concepts and Ethical Theories, Springer, Cham.
    2. Buckingham, S. and V. Le Masson. 2017. Understanding Climate Change through Gender Relations. Routledge, Abingdon.
    3. Cupples, J. 2007. Gender and Hurricane Mitch: reconstructing subjectivities after disaster. Disasters, 31, 2, 155-175.
    4. Enarson, E. and P.G.D. Chakrabarti, eds. 2009. Women, Gender and Disaster: Global Issues and Initiatives. Sage, London.
    5. Enarson, E. and B.H. Morrow, eds. 1998. The gendered terrain of disaster: through women’s eyes. Greenwood Publications, Connecticut.
    6. Enarson, E. and B. Pease. 2016. Men, Masculinities and Disaster. Routledge, Abingdon.
    7. Fordham, M. 1999. The intersection of gender and social class in disaster: Balancing resilience and vulnerability. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 17, 1, 15-36.
    8. Fordham M. 1999. Participatory planning for flood mitigation: models and approaches. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 13, 27-34.
    9. Fothergill, A. 1996. Gender, Risk, and Disaster. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters. Disasters, 14, 1, 33-56.
    10. Gaillard, JC, K. Sanz, B.C. Balgos, S.N.M. Dalisay, A. Gorman-Murray, F. Smith, and V. Toelupe. 2017. Beyond men and women: A critical perspective on gender and disaster. Disasters, 41, 3, 429-447.
    11. Gaillard, JC, A. Gorman-Murray, and M. Fordham. 2017. Sexual and gender minorities in disaster. Gender, Place and Culture, 24, 1, 18-26.
    12. Kinnvall, C. and H. Rydstrom. 2019. Climate Hazards, Disasters, and Gender Ramifications. Routledge, Abingdon.
    There are plenty more references, if they would be of interest? A direct and practical solution to gender-based vulnerabilities is to implement the specific advice and recommendations detailed in this science. For other forms of practicalities and solutions, see the book's text on the actions taken by Marcos Eduardo Barquero Varela and the people of Colorado, Nowapara, Pashurbunia, Seattle, Singas, and Toronto.


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