issue 1: natural disasters, man-made disasters

january 2020

This inaugural issue of episteme ruptures the illusive boundary between so-called natural and man-made disasters that allows us easy absolution as victims rather than instigators of climate change. The recent global climate strike galvanized unprecedented numbers of children and young people (four million across the world by some estimates), dramatically illustrating the widespread awareness of the urgency of the problem, especially for future generations who will inherit a disproportionate burden of the problems they did not create. Media coverage of this global youth uprising also noted, however, the absence of similar protests in China, currently the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. This intersection of climate and politics – conveniently duplicating the separated epistemic realms of the physical as opposed to the social sciences – therefore clarifies why we need to imagine new episteme, forms of engagement and praxes in our relations to one another and our planet. In that sense, the contributors of this issue of episteme approach their work as both practitioners and scholars to bridge theory and practice, as articulated in the vision statement for this new online forum.

Naomi Klein’s lead essay takes us to her new book On Fire, released September 2019, connecting climate crisis to capitalism, racism and systemic inequality in what she calls “climate barbarism.”  Award-winning journalist and best-selling author, Klein was among the first to problematize the alleged boundary separating natural and man-made disasters. Her 2007 The Shock Doctrine coined the term “disaster capitalism” to help name cataclysmic disasters including “natural” ones that arise out of social and economic engineering that are aimed at advancing neoliberal privatization in the interest of corporate profits. In this episteme, it is obvious that the line dividing natural and man-made disasters often naturalizes what is in fact man-made, relegating some areas of the world to “sacrifice zones”.

“Sacrifice zone” is a particularly apt description for Delhi, billed as the most air-polluted city in the world by the World Health Organization. In his contribution, D. Asher Ghertner traces the history of colonial medicine that rendered Indian lungs as functionally different from a constructed European “norm,” transforming measures of pulmonary capacity into a racialized tool to render Indians expendable to polluted air. “Enclosing functional differences in lung capacity into the geo-racial categories of ‘America’, ‘East’, and ‘China’,” he argues, should be seen as foundational area studies work reading biology into a “natural” system of geographical hierarchies. The recent re-emergence of racialized arguments about the Indian lung’s immunity to air pollution re-inscribes this colonial logic, pointing to the prominent role of medicine as a terrain of critical environmental praxis in South Asia.

While the February 2019 special issue of positions hailed the theoretical “end of area” with the dislocation of the “West” and the “Rest” as defunct categories that no longer provide fodder for Western identity, the contributions in this issue show in practice how this “end” takes shape as the climate crisis defies our very sense of location and belonging, upon which the biopolitical project of governmentality relies. As Pamela McElwee warns, climate change-induced sea level rise will quite literally change geographies and conventional ways in which certain areas and continents have been defined as the populated regions of coastal Asia are wiped from the map. In the face of such dire consequences, she argues, nations are only too eager to locate themselves in the “victim slot” without critically evaluating both governmental and individual choices that have led to the current crisis, as she shows in the case of Vietnam. Indeed, the remnants of area are visible precisely in the stubborn hold of nationalism as shown by its resurgence and the accompanying rhetoric of national victimhood.

As my co-author and long-time humanitarian worker Ewa Eriksson Fortier and I show, North Korea too lies at this intersection of “victim” and “enabler”. North Korea is among the most vulnerable places to climate change, which the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) attributes to a combination of exposure, sensitivity, and capacity to adapt to climate hazards. North Korea’s particular liability is due to developmental failures, compounded by the extreme sanctions regime that has drastically cut its capacity to deal with its increasing exposure to natural disasters, defying yet again the artificial divide between natural and man-made disasters.

What each of the essays in this issue make clear is that disasters have differential impacts with the dispossessed suffering the most, as some places and peoples are deliberately forsaken, and there is nothing natural about that. It is no wonder that children (thought to be the most powerless) have taken to the streets.

Suzy Kim, editor