My World's on Fire

By Colleen Hagerty

Why I don't use the term 'natural disaster'

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My World's on Fire
Why I don't use the term 'natural disaster'
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #55 • View online
Thanks for reading my World’s on Fire, a weekly newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you found this dispatch interesting, I hope you’ll subscribe!

First things first: A huge thanks to all who joined MWOF movie night last week! I had so much fun watching with you and will definitely be doing it again. Stay tuned
Looking back through my archives, I realized it’s been just about a year since I sent one of my most popular editions, which introduces the #NoNaturalDisasters campaign and explains why I was changing the language in my newsletter to more accurately address the disasters I was writing about. Since I know a number of you weren’t subscribers back then, I decided to give it another share this week, with an update at the ending. I’ll be back next Thursday with a brand-new dispatch!
Sometimes, writing a newsletter by myself is great. I can work on my own schedule! I can include random cute animal content! And, to all my wonderful new followers, trust me, I do.
While that also means any changes made here are on me, I want to be transparent when that happens. So, today, I’m going to explain why I’ve edited all past newsletters to remove the term “natural disaster.”
It all traces back to a shark – or, at least, an imaginary one, as described by Amanda Lamont, co-founder of the Australasian Women in Emergencies Network.
“If you’re standing on a jetty, and there’s a shark in the water, the shark is a hazard. If you’re not in the water, it’s not a disaster,” she said on an episode of the Me, Myself & Disaster podcast. “It only becomes a disaster when you’re in the water with the shark.”
Lamont continued that if you label something a “natural disaster,” people tend to shut down, seeing it as an unfortunate inevitability – well, the shark’s there, it’ll get them eventually. 
If you instead explain an earthquake or wildfire as a natural hazard that could cause a disaster, she believes it gives people back their agency. It shows they have some power to avoid that shark, or at least, to learn what to do if they encounter it (obviously, this is a metaphor, but in case you are curious). 
Lamont’s not alone in her criticism of this language – experts have actually been denouncing the “factually incorrect and misleading” terminology since 1756, according to the #NoNaturalDisasters campaign.
The movement aims “to show that whilst some hazards are natural and unavoidable, the resulting disasters almost always have been made by human actions and decisions.”
“We’re not just doing this for the sake of being difficult to change terminology,” Kevin Blanchard explained to me on a call. He’s a Senior Disaster Risk Reduction Advisor who previously worked for Public Health England, and the person behind the #NoNaturalDisasters website and Twitter.
“There are real concrete issues that need to be addressed because of decisions we’ve made,” he added. “By using ‘natural’ to describe that, it really takes away the responsibility from us to do something about it.”
To bring it back to Lamont’s shark metaphor – it’s about reestablishing accountability. 
Blanchard offered examples, ranging from the 2020 bushfires in Australia to Hurricane Katrina in the United States, of how human decisions have significantly impacted the devastation caused by natural hazards.
“It tends to be people in positions of power have made decisions, usually historical decisions, that have meant that particular marginalized groups or vulnerable communities are so at risk,” Blanchard said. “Humans have failed these people who are losing their lives and their belongings.”
Now, for a 2021 update: Since making this shift last year, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about other ways the language influences our understanding of disasters. Aside from attributing agency, it can change our perceptions of who is impacted by disasters. It can color our understanding of natural phenomena. And it can be politicized or repeated to the point that it can start to lose power – I’m thinking of words like “resilient” or “unprecedented” that have become omnipresent in coverage of communities on the frontlines of climate change.
I’ve found myself having conversations about terminology more often in my interviews, as well. When I spoke with Andrew Barley of West Street Recovery for a recent newsletter, he expressed frustration with terms like “lower income” rather than “poor” when speaking about populations most vulnerable to disasters.
“I am a low to moderate income person, and I am not a poor person – I have assets, you know, I grew up with wealth,” he said. “There really is deep and intergenerational poverty in America that we are not addressing successfully right now.”
Miriam Morrill, the subject of one of my recent articles on pyrosketchology, told me she’s never been a fan of the terms “good fire” or “bad fire,” which are often used to differentiate between prescribed burns and wildfires. It’s too simplistic, in her opinion – instead, she’d prefer people recognize fire as just part of our ecosystem, for better or worse.
Clearly, this is a topic that touches a nerve, and it’s one I find valuable for improving my reporting, so I would love to keep the conversation going. You can always reply to these emails to reach me directly or talk to me on Twitter.
And, as always…
thank you for reading and subscribing to My World’s on Fire. You can support this newsletter and get access to exclusive content by signing up for my Patreon. It also means the world to me when you post about it on social media (be sure to tag me if you do)!
Now, here’s a little something for reading to the end.
Colleen
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Colleen Hagerty

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