Sharon Wilcox

Karl Brullov, The Last Day of Pompeii (1828)
​Source: Google Art Project

Cultures of Disaster:

Natural Hazards and Society  


Natural disasters captivate us. These events frequently dominate the news cycle, compelling dramas that cast humans into seemingly unforeseen struggles for survival against nature. Disaster tourism continues to grow, as people flock to places from Pompeii to New Orleans to view sites of tragedy, loss, and suffering. Routinely, blockbuster films wreak CGI-enabled havoc borne on shifting ground, enormous waves, rapidly encroaching glaciers, and plumes of lava and fire through cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. While we seem not to tire of real and imagined tales of disaster, human development continues unabated in regions known for their potential for such hazards. We live in a time when science enables us to more accurately predict and plan for disasters than at any other point in history. Yet, when disaster does arrive, the general sentiment is one of shock visited upon populations unprepared. How can this be?


This course explores the human dimensions of natural disasters in historical and contemporary timeframes. The course focuses primarily on the United States, although we will examine disasters at different time periods around the world. This class is an interdisciplinary exploration of disaster, drawing from readings in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences to examine how social and environmental factors work together to shape the risks posed by natural hazards to human society. How do social, cultural, economic, political, ecological, and geophysical processes interact to create hazards and disasters? How does disaster science relate to culture, policy, and economy? How can we work to mitigate hazards? Who is vulnerable in these events, and why? How do we define risk, and how does the way the human mind interprets risk affect our decisions? How are natural disasters characterized in popular culture? In this course, we will explore the complicated relationships between human societies and natural hazards that result in disaster.


This course will meet Monday-Thursday, May 29 to June 17.