Wildfires recently turned the West Coast into a hazy orange hellscape, scorching a record-breaking amount of land in California and blanketing the whole region with lung-clogging smoke. The fires have already burned thousands of houses, driven Oregonians from their homes, and killed dozens of people. And it’s not even peak wildfire season yet.
You expect to see the phrase natural disaster all over the news when hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic explosions, floods, or fires cause a lot of deaths and property damage. This fire season, however, politicians and other people are beginning to ditch natural disaster for phrases that are more specific — and more accurate.
“These are not just wildfires,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee said during a press conference last week. “They are climate fires.” Oregon Governor Kate Brown wrote on Twitter that her state was experiencing an “unprecedented fire event.”
These megafires aren’t exactly “natural,” after all — they’re magnified by the hotter, drier climate humans have created, along with a century of forest fire suppression that left more fuel to burn. And 85 percent of the time, wildfires are started by people — a smoldering cigarette, an unquenched campfire, a gender reveal party gone wrong. You could argue that even the wild in wildfires is a bit misleading.
The supposed “naturalness” of disasters has been questioned since the phrase first appeared in the English language a couple hundred years ago. Mother Nature might be behind earthquakes and tsunamis, but the resulting disaster isn’t necessarily nature’s fault. The problem is that we’ve built our towns and cities in the path of hurricanes, wildfires, and floods — and governments aren’t doing a great job of protecting those who need it most.
“There’s no question that if you live in a trailer park, you’re much more susceptible to the ravages of a tornado than if you live in a more stably built house,” said Priscilla Wald, a professor of English at Duke University. The expression natural disaster obscures the inequities in society, she said: “It’s about denying the ways in which human beings make our world.”
In recent years, news articles, academic studies, and entire books have been devoted to explaining why natural disaster is a misnomer. A group called #NoNaturalDisasters uses its platform to educate journalists and call out organizations that use the phrase. Organizations are getting on board, too: The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk recently declared, “There is no such thing as a truly ‘natural’ disaster.” Last year, Greenpeace eviscerated the phrase in a viral tweet.
The expression’s popularity has slipped over the last decade, according to Google Ngram, a tool that tracks how often words are used in books. “It’s used for so many things that it’s lost the punch that it originally had,” said Kory Stamper, a lexicographer. “And so we want punchier language. We want language that conveys the severity of these things.”
“There’s a lot more profit in focusing on fighting against nature than in fighting against social inequality,” said Jason @vonmeding, an associate professor at the University of Florida. #Naturaldisasters #Climatecrisis #Socialinequality
Originally from ancient Greek, disaster meant bad star, reflecting a belief that fate was written in the stars and that gods punished humans through floods, earthquakes, droughts, and more. Over the centuries, that connotation of disaster faded, and according to Wald, the addition of natural kept the emphasis on factors outside human control. If a tsunami came crashing ashore, people focused on the water itself rather than the shoddily built or unwisely located homes it destroyed.
Natural disaster first appeared in English around 1750, Stamper said, and it didn’t take long before someone noticed its flaws. In 1755, an earthquake and tsunami struck Lisbon, Portugal, killing tens of thousands of people. At the time, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that nature “did not construct twenty thousand houses of six to seven stories” in Lisbon; if the city’s inhabitants had been more spread out and “lightly lodged,” he said, the damage would have been minimal.
The phrase was used in a weird, sporadic way for most of its history, Stamper said, but it picked up steam in the 1950s and later as federal, state, and local governments began putting more resources toward addressing potential hazards — like warning systems and building codes for earthquakes — with funding earmarked for natural disasters. The expression’s use peaked around the early 2000s and has remained high since, she said.
There’s a compelling explanation for why governments popularized the phrase: It provides them with a convenient defense if they mess up. “There are politicians who love to call them natural because that gets them off the hook,” said Terry Cannon, a research fellow at The Institute of Development Studies in the United Kingdom who studies climate change and disaster vulnerability.
Back in January, during Australia’s most catastrophic fire season on record, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked if his government’s response to the bushfires was inadequate. “There is no doubt natural disasters are termed that way because that is what they are — they are natural disasters,” he said. “They wreak this sort of havoc when they affect our country and they have for a very long time.”
Another factor: money. “There’s a lot more profit in focusing on fighting against nature than in fighting against social inequality,” said Jason von Meding, an associate professor at the University of Florida, and companies and research institutions take advantage of it. “More sea walls, better mapping or hazard monitoring isn’t going to solve those social problems,” he said, “and yet most of our funding is going to technological innovation.”
Increasingly, however, people are grasping the message that disasters in nature often aren’t “natural.” In some cases, when people use the phrase now, they do so only to explain why the expression is wrong.
“And while [the wildfires] might easily be dismissed as a natural disaster, they are smudged with human fingerprints,” wrote Kale Williams, a reporter at the Oregonian, last week. Dale Smith, a writer at the tech news site CNET, recently wrote that “‘natural disaster’ is something of a misnomer.” A good number of academic articles mention the phrase simply to critique how others have used it.
Over the last five years or so, substitutes like extreme weather events and unnatural disaster have become more popular. “Scientists Warn That Fires, Extreme Weather Events Are Getting Worse,” read a headline earlier this week in Futurism, a science and tech site. The Atlantic’s recent podcast series about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was titled “Floodlines: The Story of an Unnatural Disaster.”
“That people have started using alternate terms,” Stamper said, “tells me that we might be more ready to move away from natural disaster than we were 15 years ago. Back then, almost everything was a natural disaster.”
Still, von Meding cautions that avoiding the phrase doesn’t get at the root of the problem — the denial of human responsibility — and it can lead people to become hyperfocused on correcting language.
“You can say that you’re not going to use the language natural disaster anymore, and sure, that’s a little bit of a win,” von Meding said. “But if you’re not also talking about power and inequity and injustice and structural violence, then are you really solving anything, or are you just being PC?”