Keiner on Lizarralde, 'Unnatural Disasters: Why Most Responses to Risk and Climate Change Fail but Some Succeed'

Gonzalo Lizarralde. Unnatural Disasters: Why Most Responses to Risk and Climate Change Fail but Some Succeed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021. 328 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-19810-3

Reviewed by Christine Keiner
Published on H-Environment (April, 2022)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

The Softer Side of the Shock Doctrine

This is a depressing but important book for everyone interested in sustainable design, disaster-risk reduction and response, and climate change mitigation. The author, Gonzalo Lizarralde, is a professor of architecture who has spent the past two decades working in Haiti, Cuba, and other places devastated by so-called natural disasters. Drawing upon his experiences in the field, as well as a range of publications produced primarily since the 1990s by social scientists, journalists, international agencies, and nongovernmental organizations, Lizarralde provides a powerful critique of naïve expectations and superficial narratives regarding sustainable postdisaster reconstruction.

Unnatural Disasters contributes to the emerging field of critical disaster studies, for which one of the foundational tenets is that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. From this perspective, while earthquakes, floods, storms, tornadoes, and other such destructive events are caused by biogeophysical forces rather than human activities per se, they exacerbate preexisting social injustices because poor and vulnerable people are more likely to live in dangerous places and less likely to be able to flee them during crises. Like other disaster researchers, Lizarralde uses vivid examples to show how long-standing patterns of poverty, segregation, racism, and inequality amplify “unnatural disasters.”

Lizarralde builds in particular upon the work of journalist Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), and other scholars of neoliberalism, who examine how proponents of free-market economics take advantage of disasters to implement policies designed to deregulate markets, transfer state funds and responsibilities to the private sector, and undermine trust in public institutions and democracy. Rather than focusing on bad-faith actors, Lizarralde examines how mostly well-meaning international charities, urban consulting agencies, and disaster management officials have legitimized harmful neoliberal approaches by utilizing sustainability concepts in uncritical, greenwashed ways that fail to deliver meaningful results for marginalized communities struggling to rebuild.

The bulk of the book provides searing examples of how the language of sustainable development, resilience planning, public participation, and technological innovation has become “abstracted, disconnected from reality, and at times, meaningless” in the hands of the “disaster industry” (p. 257). While the argument that disaster-oriented academics and practitioners must reject apolitical framings and feel-good buzzwords is by no means original, Lizarralde’s analysis exposes the problematic extent to which “the resilience ideology” (p. 148) has permeated postdisaster development policy in recent decades.

The book provides a crucial message for engineering, architecture, urban planning, and design professionals seeking to apply their expertise to communities traumatized by floods, storms, fires, and other such events that are becoming more intense and frequent due to climate change. Exciting but evidence-free TED Talks about floating houses and reports full of resilience rhetoric do nothing for disaster victims; by contrast, as revealed by a growing number of studies, direct subsidies (i.e., cash transfers) and strong local institutions are significant predictors of postdisaster recovery.

Finally, as Lizarralde concludes, addressing environmental disasters is not only the job of experts. Just as scholars and practitioners need to question sustainability jargon and conduct realistic follow-up studies of reconstruction projects, citizens have important roles to play in disaster-risk reduction. Decreasing our levels of consumption, recognizing the links between environmental challenges and social inequities, viewing unnatural disasters “as the result of our collective decisions” rather than as problems for others to fix (p. 254), and extending empathy and compassion to all disaster victims constitute key works for everyone in a world of escalating climate catastrophes.

Citation: Christine Keiner. Review of Lizarralde, Gonzalo, Unnatural Disasters: Why Most Responses to Risk and Climate Change Fail but Some Succeed. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. April, 2022.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.