Review: Catastrophe & Culture–The Anthropology of Disaster

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5.0 out of 5 stars Superb Focus on Culture Underlying Catastrophe,

December 13, 2002
Susanna M. Hoffman
This is one of those books where the Amazon.com referal system worked for me. I would never have found it otherwise. It is a timely book, and it has direct relevance to the 9-11 catastrophe because everything this book talks about in terms of “cultures of catastrophe” (one could call them cultures of oblivion or cultures of inattention) resonates with the findings of the joint congressional panel on the many ways in which the CIA, FBI, and NSA failed America.What most engaged me about this book, apart from its outstanding attention to the relationship between cultures of inattention or distraction and major catastrophic events (the book makes clear that catastrophe’s don’t have to happen–they make the jump from disasters when the over-all system of first responders and related parties fails to act quickly and correctly in harmony, precisely because of their past culture), is its focus on the total system, on every feature of society in relation to the environment.

The editors write: “One of the common sources of the policy-practice defect is its construction on culturally bound assumptions. In disaster contexts, aid often gets delivred in inappropriate forms and according to unsuited principles.” The book excells at looking at the uneven record of disaster preparedness, and the lack of understanding to local contexts that often help turn disasters into catastrophes.

I recommend this book as a primary reference for national security practitioners as well as state & local responders. The … billions now in the Homeland Security budget was not designed with this book’s lessons in mind, and will in all likelihood do more damage than good when we are tested again.

The message of the book is so important it merits emphasis–no amount of money is going to prevent catastrophe–absent a commitment to creating a culture of attention and interoperability and information sharing, we will create our own catastrophes each time we are challenged by what could have been nothing more than a localized disaster.

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Dec 13

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