Mobile Disasters

Catastrophes in the Age of Manufactured Uncertainty

in Transfers


Sociologists of disasters and those agencies dedicated to disaster risk reduction and emergency relief tend to fix disasters, to confine them in time and space. This article argues for the necessity of a mobilities turn within mainstream disaster studies, demonstrating what the new mobilities paradigm (NMP) can contribute to disaster scholarship. Disasters should be seen as mobile agents with spatially and temporally dispersed effects. They are mobile because people, nonhuman life-forms, information, and commodities move. The ecosystems and earth systems that sustain us are also always in flux. Instead of focusing on isolated disaster cases, this article calls for a “big picture” ecological sensibility that recognizes the complexity and interconnectivity of our world, and addresses the new forms of mobility, temporality, spatiality, and potency inherent to today’s disasters. This task is urgent: while previous eras may have announced the apocalypse, ours may well be the last one to do so.

Introduction: The New Catastrophism

We live in disastrous times. The planet is witnessing unparalleled wealth disparities,1 global warming,2 and “peak everything,”3 culminating in the prospect of mass extinction.4 Barely a day goes by without a horror headline like “More Plastic Than Fish in Sea by 2050”5 or “Carbon Emission Release Rate ‘Unprecedented’ in Past 66 Million Years.”6 Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that “growing global inequality, increasing exposure to natural hazards, rapid urbanization and the overconsumption of energy and natural resources threaten to drive risk to dangerous and unpredictable levels with systemic global impacts.”7 All available evidence shows that disasters are increasing in frequency, cost, scale, and severity.8 Even so, a 2017 World Bank report suggests that we have not yet fully appreciated their impacts: “Disasters are far greater threats to well-being than traditional estimates suggest.”9

Paradoxically, sociologists of disaster fear that disaster studies seems doomed to intellectual marginality at precisely the moment of its greatest need. Their biggest concern is that disaster scholarship suffers from a poverty of theory.10 Stated simply, disaster thinking has failed to keep pace with the times. This article attempts to break half a century of conceptual impasse by theorizing disasters anew. For more than fifty years, disasters have been defined within the field as spectacular events that are concentrated in time and space. In other words, the preferred definition of disaster has remained static across a time span we now refer to as the Great Acceleration, a period of anthropogenic change that Will Steffen and colleagues call the most “dramatic and unprecedented … in human history.”11

The classic exposition of the standard definition of disaster comes from Charles E. Fritz, who suggested it in the early 1960s: “A disaster is an event concentrated in time and space, in which a society or one of its subdivisions undergoes physical harm and social disruption, such that all or some essential functions of the society or subdivision are impaired.”12 Today this restrictive notion of disaster is officially enshrined in the terminology of prominent agencies like the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.13 Here I ask: Should disasters be so contained? Would disaster studies benefit from a mobilities turn of its own?

What follows may be read as a modest contribution to John Urry’s call for a “new catastrophism,” which is to say, a future-oriented scholarship that recognizes the scale of the planet’s problems and as such connects literatures in the social, physical, and environmental sciences. Part of this project involves reckoning with industrialization’s unintended consequences (which I discuss here as the condition of manufactured uncertainty), particularly the continued plunder of scarce, nonrenewable, and polluting resources. Urry contends that we must also be attuned to (high-carbon) complex interconnected systems: they traverse the planet, are frequently more fragile than is commonly supposed, and can interact in ways that are often incomprehensible and uncontrollable.14 The point about interconnection is absolutely fundamental. As the director of my institution’s Marine Science Institute put it, the biggest problem confronting the planet’s seas is not climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, or fertilizer runoff; it is their complex interaction.15

The potential now exists for globalized disasters. This has been recognized by the new mobilities paradigm (NMP) from the outset. Indeed, the initial editorial in Mobilities foregrounded (global) movement’s centrality to modern disasters. As Kevin Hannam, Mimi Sheller, and John Urry’s opening paragraph put it, “From SARS and avian influenza to train crashes, from airport expansion controversies to controlling global warming, from urban congestion charging to networked global terrorism, from emergency management in the onslaught of tsunamis and hurricanes to oil wars in the Middle East, issues of ‘mobility’ are centre-stage.”16

In Eric Hsu’s helpful framing,17 the NMP offers us at least five ways of conceptualizing and researching disasters and mobility:

  • Disasters as mobility disruptors Disasters prevent the usual movement of people, nonhuman biological agents, information, and objects.18
  • Disasters as mobility motivators Disasters foster new, and frequently global, forms of movement, as in the forced movement of refugees, the mobilization of international relief workers and the provision of aid,19 or the transfer of information, such as supportive messages through social media.20
  • Disasters as mobility indicators: Disasters demonstrate the fragility of mobility systems.21 They also reveal differential outcomes for those in possession of different amounts of “network capital”: “kinetic elites” still move with ease, but the poor find themselves stranded, bringing issues of mobility justice to the fore.22
  • Disasters and the consequences of mobility: Mobility systems can play a causal role in disasters, such as the energy-hungry systems of automobility and air travel, both of which contribute to global warming.23
  • Disasters as mobile agents: Disasters can have impacts far beyond the original time and place of impact. For example, the effects of 9/11 are still felt in international air travel, global politics, and state surveillance.24

This article argues that we will achieve greater analytical clarity and intellectual purchase if we conceptualize disasters as being mobile. Disasters are here defined as significant damage that harms life and living conditions. Here I ask that the reader indulge me by placing less stress on the perfection of the definition and more on the motivations for its promulgation. As with all concepts and categorizations, this provides a way to think about the world and to organize knowledge about it. It is a precondition for thought, not to be confused with knowledge itself. Research in and on the world inevitably problematizes the categories we work with.25 Here my conceptualization of disasters has a singular aim: how best to think about our present condition. It is motivated by four concerns: that the worst disasters may not be concentrated in time and space (as with the 11 March 2011 Great East Japan earthquake, now commonly referred to as 3.11), that they may be devastating without being spectacular (as with heat waves), that they may affect more than humans (as with mass habitat destruction or ocean acidification), and that they may even appear ambient (as with global air pollution).26 While being far from flawless, it can at least circumvent the problems associated with the standard (sociological) definition, which ignores the geographic range of disasters, all nonhumans, and those “extensive” disasters that do the greatest damage (like droughts).27 These points are now elaborated on with reference to 3.11.

Fukushima: Disaster as Mobile Agent

Low-frequency acoustic waves generated by the major earthquake were picked up by one of the European Space Agency’s satellites. Dynamic stress transfer caused mini earthquakes across the globe. Tsunami waves prized icebergs loose in Antarctica, while large waves crashed into parts of the North and South American coastline. Houses were destroyed on Indonesia’s shoreline. Russia effected a mass evacuation from low-lying areas of the Kuril Islands. Radioactive isotopes circled the planet.

A stretch of debris more than three thousand kilometers long began to move across the North Pacific. On the Internet, calls for calm and official denials were met with conspiracy theories and accusations of cover-ups. Beijing supermarkets witnessed panic buying of salt, spurred by the erroneous belief that it would prevent radioactive contamination. The same was observed in other Chinese provinces. A run on potassium iodide tablets was reported in western Canada. South of the border, sales of gas masks, Geiger counters, and survival kits soared.

No longer able to source critical components from Japan, General Motors suspended operations at its assembly plant in Shreveport, Louisiana. The share prices of European reinsurers plummeted.28 Taiwanese producers of semiconductors braced themselves for falling profits.29 Global supplies of the specialist paint pigment Xirallic dried up, and those of aluminum capacitors, bismaleimide-triazine (BT) resin, and silicon wafers became increasingly difficult to source.30 Xirallic, for example, was produced at a single site in Iwaki City, while more than a fifth of the world’s silicon wafer supply came from one factory in Fukushima Prefecture.31

A host of European countries announced radical changes to their national energy policies. Anticipating a new energy future, investors made their preferences felt. The price of uranium dropped precipitously on world markets, while that of liquefied natural gas (LNG) soared. Uranium mines in South Australia were mothballed. In sub-Saharan Africa, a number of uranium mines deferred their opening, while mergers and proposed purchases were canceled. Gas-fired power generation in Great Britain went into the red. Cattle futures hit record prices in Chicago on the back of radioactive beef in the East. The United Kingdom’s first commercial edible seaweed farm opened for business (no one wants to consume radioactive seaweed either).32

All of the above were media-reported consequences of, and responses to, a disaster far, far away, whose effects were nevertheless felt across all continents and even to the edges of space. On 11 March 2011, a 9.0-magnitude mega-thrust earthquake occurred off the coast of TMhuku, Japan.33 It was the largest earthquake the country had experienced since modern scientific measurements began. The Great East Japan earthquake, as it subsequently became known, moved the Japanese island of Honshu almost two and a half meters eastward. The earth’s axis shifted. The earthquake created massive tsunami waves up to forty meters high. Such was the power of this wall of water that it completely overran one of the world’s most tsunami-protected coastlines. In the Sendai region, the waves penetrated ten kilometers inland. At the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, they breeched the sea walls, leading to explosions. The plant’s cooling system failed. Three reactor units had melt-downs. There followed the largest ever radioactive discharge into the ocean. The International Atomic Energy Agency declared the event a level 7 on its International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, the most serious possible.34

In the immediate aftermath, political authorities considered unprecedented human mobility; the prime minister at the time, Naoto Kan, later told a reporter that the government had given serious thought to evacuating everyone within a 160-mile radius of the power plant, in addition to the entire population of Tokyo. This would have resulted in something like fifty million people having to move in short order.35 To give some sense to this figure in terms of scale alone, a record 65.3 million people were displaced across 2015 globally according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.36

Sometimes “Fukushima” serves as a shorthand way of referring to all of these things; other times it is called “3.11” to resonate with the defining moment of the twenty-first century thus far—9/11. In Fukushima (which translates as “happy island,” “fortunate place”), we have something unique. The World Bank identified it as the planet’s first “quadruple” disaster, combining an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor accident with worldwide supply chain disruption.37 In Fukushima we also have something prophetic, a portent of the twenty-first century’s risks and hazards. Today’s risks are marked by their complexity and exacerbated by our interconnectivity. Techniques of modern industrial production (including nuclear power) magnify their ambiguity and potency, also making 3.11 a paradigmatic example of what Ulrich Beck called “manufactured uncertainty.”38 In the world that we have created, disaster can strike at any moment. Stocks or heavily laden trains might crash; financial markets or nuclear power stations might melt down.

Manufactured “hyperobjects” will be our perverse gift to the planet. Such things display new forms of mobility, spatiality, and temporality. Global warming’s effects are felt across the world and will continue to be felt centuries hence. “Materials from humble Styrofoam to terrifying plutonium will far outlast current social and biological forms,” writes Timothy Morton. “We are talking about hundreds and thousands of years. Five hundred years from now, polystyrene objects such as cups and takeout boxes will still exist. Ten thousand years ago, Stonehenge didn’t exist. Ten thousand years from now, plutonium will still exist.”39

Twenty-First-Century Disasters

Disasters of the twenty-first century have the potential to display a number of novel features. First, there is the scale of devastation. They damage more infrastructure and affect more people. Fukushima also led to widespread power outages and loss of water supply for millions (which is but one reason why reference to a “quadruple” disaster may well be to sell it short). The greatest impacts of 3.11 were felt in the Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima Prefectures of Japan, where twenty thousand were killed, up to a thousand times that number displaced, and a million buildings destroyed. The cost of the power plant’s cleanup alone—and it is a matter of considerable debate whether radioactive contamination is ever “cleaned up”—has ballooned to almost $20 billion. The government estimates that this work will take three to four more decades.40 It is roundly regarded as the most complex nuclear accident to date.

Second, these new disasters are much more complex in terms of their distribution. Their reach is such that their ability to be managed is made difficult in the extreme. The point about mobile disasters is reiterated: what happened on happy island did not stay on happy island.41 Fukushima’s impacts are truly diffuse. Supply chain impacts span the globe, and neither the radioactive waste nor the tsunami debris could be contained within Japan’s sovereign territory. Media reports record debris making landfall along the United States’ western coastline. Simeon Paterson’s 9 March 2016 piece for BBC News noted some of the more surprising finds: the sign for Tanohata’s Shimanokoshi village housing was found on Kahaku Beach, Oahu, Hawai’i; Ikio Yokoyama’s Harley-Davidson motorbike made it to the shores of Graham Island, British Columbia, Canada; while Misaki Murakami’s soccer ball was swept from Rikuzenkata all the way to Middleton Island, Alaska.

Third, these new disasters are “inconceivable” before the event.42 Neither the plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), nor the Nuclear and Industrial Agency (NISA), charged with regulatory oversight, took tsunami threat seriously enough to mitigate the risk. As one industry insider put it, “If the occurrence of the tsunami was assumed, I believe that it would have been possible to take technical measures” to prevent such a serious accident.43 Social theorists have long subscribed to the idea that we live in disastrous times,44 that we inhabit a world of risks.45 Whether these increased risks are objectively true or whether it is our subjective risk perceptions and responses that constitute the primary problem of our age is a matter of some debate.46 All the same, they have noted the resulting anxieties, suggesting that ours is an era of profound psychosocial change in which “the impossible is becoming possible.”47 The defining happenings of our time—the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the implosion of the Soviet Union, anthropogenic climate change, the global financial crisis, and the crisis in the eurozone (to which we can now add Brexit and US President Donald Trump’s election)—all have this in common. Before they took place, they were “unthinkable.” Few anticipated them or foresaw their long-term effects.48

Fukushima worked its way through various earth systems (atmospheric, terrestrial, and oceanic). It also worked its way through numerous human systems (communication, economic, energy, health, technical, and political). The two systems are, of course, very much entangled. Tectonic forces, winds, and ocean waves and currents mix with settlement patterns, share prices, and business practices. These processes display multiple spatialities, with forces being observed from ground zero to two hundred and fifty kilometers away (at the edge of space) and thirteen thousand kilometers away (in Antarctica). They involve different materialities, commingling the natural, the nonhuman biological, the human, and the technological. And they display different temporalities.

We might say that disasters are always mobile: they are many things at the same time and many different things at different times. Tourists have returned to Japan in predisaster numbers, but Fukushima is still depopulated. The Japanese automobile industry is now operating normally, but the reactor cleanup (assuming this is even possible) will go on for a generation or more, while the evacuation zone will stay off–limits for decades. Some things will never return to the status quo ante. Instead, adjustments will have to be made to the new normal. Human outcomes and fortunes also vary according to location and occupation. Fukushima was terrible for those in the prefectures directly affected, it gave Japan its severest postwar crisis, and it was bad news for those associated with the nuclear power industry. But it was rather better for those in the business of selling anticancer pharmaceuticals, shale gas fields, and LNG, and in Britain it gave birth to an entirely new commercial enterprise.

This leads us to a consideration of Fukushima’s aftershocks. Among the fallout, we must list casualties in the realms of energy, politics, and economics. Fukushima has undermined the Japanese public’s trust in authority, reconfiguring relations between the state and civil society.49 It also led to questions regarding safe long-term food provision, the location of coastal communities, the demographic drift to urban regions, suitable infrastructure, and the role of the media.50 Globally, pressure has mounted to expunge nuclear power from the portfolio of national energy policy, and it has shaken the business world’s faith in “just-in-time” production systems. Questions of sustainability have been brought into sharp relief, with particular emphasis placed on such issues as the requirement for greater levels of corporate and political transparency, the need for clean renewable energy, and supply chain security.

Disasters and the Consequences of Mobility, Part I: Interconnected Life

In this section, I focus further on processes of globalization, particularly on the increasing volume, density, and speed of our interconnections. Here I draw on Paul Virilio’s work to gain analytical purchase. For Virilio, modernity is underpinned by acceleration. He adds that we cannot understand our history or the technology that propels it without coming to terms with a connected phenomenon: the accident. He christens this project “accidentology.”51 Virilio’s core idea has a compelling simplicity: when we invent a new technology, we also inevitably invent the possibility of unintended and unfortunate outcomes. The train’s invention creates the derailment, just as the automobile’s invention gives rise to the car crash.

The twentieth century was marked by mass-produced disasters in which the impossible happened. For Virilio, it was symbolically bracketed by the sinking of the “unsinkable” Titanic (1912) and the meltdown of Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor (1986), which had hitherto been celebrated by the Soviet regime for its safety. Industrial accidents continue in the twenty-first century, but we also now contend with new postindustrial accidents in information and genetic technology. Virilio said that these move us toward the “generalized” accident. This is a shift from the contained “in situ” accidents and disasters of old to new “integral” accidents that will be experienced everywhere by everyone.52

While all technologies are accidents in waiting, Virilio argues, they herald something of an entirely different order when they are instant, interconnected, and interactive: the accident to end all accidents. Occurrences like the 2010 Flash Crash now happen in global time and global space, seen everywhere simultaneously. This crash gives us insights into changes within our sociotechnical landscape that bear on today’s accidents: the pace of technological advances, growing technological convolutions (who is in control?), the transmuting forms of accidents in a networked world, the increasing concentration and synchronization of human-machine relationships,53 and the new types of risks and disasters that potentially arise from what Urry calls “concatenating processes.”54

Here we should note a long-observed phenomenon: accidents and disasters are “normal” in complex high-tech assemblages. This is because the potential exists for failures within the system to interact with each other in unanticipated and often incomprehensible ways. These will be particularly devastating in “tightly coupled” systems in which processes are rapid, closely linked, and hard to stop. A fundamental property of interdependent networks is that failure of nodes in one network may lead to failure of dependent nodes in other networks. This can happen recursively and lead to cascading failures.55 Reiterating points made in the previous section, what makes today’s disasters more disastrous are the scale and distribution of these networked systems. They frame our world.

Such is our lot: integral events that are transmitted instantaneously, dispersed globally, and experienced universally. Luc Boltanksi wrote that these days “everyone can know everything about everything,”56 but this is not always empowering. Sometimes it is traumatizing and debilitating. The “generalized accident” to come signals a globalization of effects and of affects, as worldwide communications media permit the synchronization of planetary emotion. While yet to happen, there have been intimations of what it might be like: the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, various financial panics and meltdowns, the attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, and 3.11.

Disasters and the Consequences of Mobility, Part II: From Plagues to Biopollution

Of course, theorists like Virilio tend to the prophetic rather than the prosaic, to think in terms of worst-case scenarios in preference to more routine matters. We can move beyond the spectacular to consider everyday disaster. If we think for a moment about global shipping, as mobilities scholars so often have,57 we can see the ways in which Virilio’s formulation of technological innovation plus acceleration can be unintentionally disastrous.

Here Jeremy Harding furnishes an example. His object of concern is the fungal disease Chalara fraxinea, which kills ash trees. It is very much a global problem, spread by global trade. In the United Kingdom, authorities have banned both the internal movement of ash trees and their importation from overseas. The destruction of diseased saplings in nurseries and younger trees has also been ordered. In France, authorities have all but given up containing it. They estimate the disease’s spread at 150 kilometers a year. “Plants have always been moved about,” Harding observes, “but a voyage on a sailing ship was long enough for a pathogen to die, or kill the specimen, before arrival. On a steamship the odds of survival improved. C. fraxinea is one of many globe-trotter diseases attacking oak, chestnut, alder, Corsican pine, new generations of elm and several other species, in a world of 24-hour deliveries.”58

We also need to consider the consequences arising from the sheer volume of these shipping activities. They too augur something new. Human-mediated transport moves animals, plants, viruses, and bacteria around the world. Here we stick with the example of commercial shipping, looking at the content of ballast holding tanks. These tanks are required by ships for both structural soundness and stability (though it should be added that shipping’s environmental impacts also include greenhouse gas emissions and acoustic and oil pollution.) The number, size, and speed of these ships have increased massively since the mid-twentieth century. Now it is thought that they transport seven thousand marine species every hour of every day across the world’s oceans.59

Lisa-Ann Gershwin looks at the mobile nemesis Mnemiopsis leidyi, a small jellyfish with a large reputation. Native to the East Coast of the United States, at least two distinct populations made it to the Black Sea: one from the Gulf of Mexico, the other via Rhode Island to either the Baltic Sea or North Sea. It was first found in the Black Sea in the early 1980s, and a decade later it had made it to the Caspian Sea (probably via the Volga Don Channel). In 2005, it was found in the waters of Denmark (western Jutland) and Norway (Oslofjorden), and the next year on the coasts of Sweden, Holland, and Germany. By 2007, it was in the Gulf of Finland, the Bothnian Sea, and the Gulf of Gdansk.60

In Gershwin’s estimation, Mnemiopsis’s proliferation in the Black Sea is among “the world’s worst cases of multinational economic loss and large-scale ecosystem collapse” to be caused by an introduced species.61 It is emblematic of today’s environmental maladies. Gershwin says we are no longer in an era of plagues. However bad plagues may have been, they were contained in time and space. Now we are in the epoch of biopollution. For nuisance species, the world is their oyster, or pelagic fish eggs. This is disaster globalized.

Mnemiopsis overwhelms other planktonic species. In the Black Sea, its population was estimated at more than one billion tons. Human activities are to blame. Overfishing is a major causal factor, as are the flows from human settlement, effluent, industrial waste, and fertilizer runoff. The resulting pollution and the commercial decimation of predators like anchovies created the perfect conditions for it to thrive. It devoured other zooplankton, fish eggs, and larvae. It became 95 percent of the total wet weight biomass (that is to say, 95 percent of all living things) in that sea, making for yet another instance of the impossible happening. In the aftermath, the remnants of commercial fishing fleets took a severe hit. Gershwin wrote: “It may seem inconceivable that a mucousy little jellyfish, barely bigger than a chicken egg, with no brain, no backbone, and no eyes, could cripple three national economies and wipe out an entire eco-system. But it could. And it did. If there were a poster child for unthinkable ecological disaster, certainly Mnemiopsis would be it.”62

The End

Each age announces its own apocalypse. What, then, might we say is novel to our own? After all, hasn’t the world “ended” before? Take Barbara Tuchman’s distant mirror, held up to the fourteenth century. Reflected back were issues that are eerily familiar to us: war, famine, religious conflict, the end of prosperity, general precarity, popular uprisings, and the onset of extreme climate change (the Medieval Warm Period was being displaced by the Little Ice Age). In addition, those in the late Middle Ages also had to contend with “the most lethal disaster of recorded history,” the Black Death, a pandemic that killed a third of the world’s population from India to Iceland.63 The actual body count is unknowable, but today’s demographers accept that figure, which meshes with medieval estimates drawn from St. John’s plague mortality rate in Revelation. Mobile disasters are clearly not a unique feature of modernity. The Black Death followed established human movements across trading routes: the caravans of Central Asia; the coastal ports of Messina, Genoa, Venice, and Marseille; the ships of the Levant; and onward through navigable rivers such as the Rhône.

What is unique to modernity? Paul Virilio echoes Bloch’s observation: “Contemporary civilization differs in one particularly distinctive feature from those which preceded it: speed.”64 Napoleon could travel from the Seine to the Tiber no faster and no differently than Julius Caesar two millennia prior. A century on, the Paris-to-Rome trip could be completed in twenty-four hours in a sleeping car.65 Today you could fly it in two hours. An e-mail can make the journey between these capitals in a fraction of a second. Speed is one point of difference, but as I have been at pains to note, the connectivity, complexity, reach, and power of today’s technologies figure too.

I should also note the economic system that is globally dominant, whose logic is predicated on relentless accumulation, whose treatment of nature is as a resource to be plundered, and whose drive is to externalize whatever costs it can. Capitalism has given us unprecedented wealth disparities. Moreover, individual profits have come at a monumental collective price. “Resource extraction on an industrial scale mostly exemplifies the infamous tragedy of the commons,” as William T. Vollmann has written, “namely, that degradation to the environment is a fractional cost divided among everybody around, while the benefit to each exploiter is a whole integer that need not be shared.”66

In this article, I have discussed the deleterious effects of industrialization in terms of manufactured uncertainty, which, for Anthony Giddens, denotes “our conscious intrusion into our own history and our interventions into nature.”67 To give some specific details, mining operations are now so vast that when their walls collapse, they cause earthquakes.68 Shell-BP’s gas flaring in Nigeria has given the Dere people ten years of continuous daylight.69 The world’s oceans have five trillion pieces of plastic waste floating in them.70 Tens of thousands of objects of human manufacture orbit the earth. An estimated 90 percent of these satellites no longer work.71 Manufactured uncertainty records the fact that we can change the climate, make the earth move, turn night into day, fill the heavens and the seas, and create things that endure for all time, but we cannot control the consequences of this. Social theorists often invoke the metaphor of an out-of-control vehicle propelling us toward our unknown collective fate.72

Such practices have fueled the Great Acceleration, globalizing our environmental problems.73 And it takes us to the real novelty of our times. Humans did not cause the Little Ice Age; the culprits include cyclical lows in solar radiation, explosive volcanic activity, and changes in atmospheric circulation. Global warming, by contrast, is on us. The world was transformed in the period from 1700 to 2000. In three hundred years, between the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the dawn of this millennium, we have gone from being a planet that was mostly wild into one that is primarily anthropogenic.74

We should therefore now add our species to the list of megascale earth processes through their sheer numbers, use of resources, killing of other species, spread of pathogens, pollution, fragmentation of habitats, and introduction of nonnative species.75 Human mobility is its own disaster, although it is by no means the only driver of disasters in our world. Elizabeth Kolbert notes the spread of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), a disease that is now decimating frog populations in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia. “Without being loaded by someone onto a boat or a plane, it would have been impossible for a frog carrying Bd to get from … North America to Europe. This sort of intercontinental reshuffling, which nowadays we find totally unremarkable, is probably unprecedented in the three-and-a-half-billion-year history of life.”76 Such are the scale and impacts of these activities.

A working group of the the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) is deliberating over whether to announce an epoch unlike any other: one in which human beings are so dominant that they are exerting a geological influence on the planet and unprecedented stress on its ecosystems. Should this occur, it will be the first major revision to the geological time scale in more than a century. It would see the present time officially labeled the Anthropocene. Almost all of human history since before the dawn of agriculture has taken place in Holocene conditions.

Previous ages have announced the apocalypse, but ours may well be the last one to ever do so.77


I would like to thank the organizers of the “Dangerous Mobilities” conference from which this article first emerged, and the editors and referees involved with its subsequent publication.


Deborah Hardoon, Sophia Ayele, and Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, An Economy for the 1%: How Privilege and Power in the Economy Drive Extreme Inequality and How It Can Be Stopped, 210 Oxfam Briefing Paper (Oxford: Oxfam International, 2016).


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International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), “What Is a Disaster?” (accessed 24 January 2017); UNISDR, 2009 Terminology on Disaster Risk Reduction (Geneva: United Nations, 2009),


John Urry, Climate Change and Society (Cambridge: Polity, 2011), 36–37, 44–45, 166.


Simon Thrush, “The Future of Our Seas,” talk hosted by Project for Media in the Public Interest, University of Auckland, 18 May 2017.


Kevin Hannam, Mimi Sheller, and John Urry, “Editorial: Mobilities, Immobilities and Moorings,” Mobilities 1, no. 1 (2006): 1–22, here 1.


Eric L. Hsu, “Defining Disasters in the New Mobilities Paradigm,” Centre for Mobilities Research, Lancaster University, 8 November 2016,


Hannam et al., “Editorial,” 7.


Peter Adey, “Emergency Mobilities,” Mobilities 11, no. 1 (2016): 32–48.


Daniel Chaffee, “Digital Disaster Communities,” in The Consequences of Global Disasters, ed. Anthony Elliott and Eric L. Hsu (London: Routledge, 2016), 80–94.


Peter Adey and Ben Anderson, “Anticipation, Materiality, Event: The Icelandic Ash Cloud Disruption and the Security of Mobility,” Mobilities 6, no. 1 (2011): 11–20.


Tim Cresswell, On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World (New York: Routledge, 2006), 240, 255–257; Mimi Sheller, “The Islanding Effect: Post-disaster Mobility Systems and Humanitarian Logistics in Haiti,” Cultural Geographies 20, no. 2 (2012): 185–204, here 195.


Urry, Climate Change and Society, 68.


Stephen Little, “Twin Towers and Amoy Gardens: Mobilities, Risks and Choices,” in Mobile Technologies of the City, ed. Mimi Sheller and John Urry, (London: Routledge, 2006), 121–133.


For a more eloquent exposition of this point, see Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 182.


“A new WHO air quality model confirms that 92% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits.” World Health Organization, “WHO Releases Country Estimates on Air Pollution Exposure and Health Impact,” press release, 27 September 2016, ws/releases/2016/air-pollution-estimates/en.


Matthewman, Disasters, Risks and Revelation, 6–8, 130.


BBC News, “Japan Earthquake: Insurers Hit by Claim Fears,” 14 March 2011,


Yu-Tzu Chiu, “How Japan’s Earthquake Is Shaking Up Taiwan’s High-Tech Sector,” IEEE Spectrum, 30 March 2011,


Peter Valdes-Dapena, “Ford, Chrysler Restrict Colors for New Cars,” CNN Money, 28 March 2011,


Dennis Fisher, “Japan Disaster Shakes up Supply-Chain Strategies,” Harvard Business School, 31 May 2011,


Bill Gardner, “Woman Starts UK’s First Kelp Farm to Supply Japanese Market Hit by Fukushima Disaster,” Telegraph, 26 June 2014, se-market-hit-by-Fukushima-disaster.html">


International Tsunami Information Center, “11 March 2011, MW 9.0, Near the East Coast of Honshu Japan Tsunami,” 11 March 2011, =article&id=1713&Itemid=2365&lang=en.


International Atomic Energy Agency, “Fukushima Nuclear Accident Update Log,” 12 April 2011,


Andrew Gilligan, “Fukushima: Tokyo Was on the Brink of Nuclear Catastrophe, Admits Former Prime Minister,” Telegraph, 4 March 2016,


Adrian Edwards, “Global Forced Displacement Hits Record High,” UN High Commission for Refugees, 20 June 2016,


Federica Ranghieri and Mikio Ishiwatari, The Great East Japan Earthquake: Learning from Megadisasters (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2012),,2.


Ulrich Beck, “World Risk Society as Cosmopolitan Society? Ecological Questions in a Framework of Manufactured Uncertainties,” Theory, Culture and Society 13, no. 4 (1996): 1–32.


Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 130.


Justin McCurry, “Five Years On, Cleanup of Fukushima’s Reactors Remains a Distant Goal,” Guardian, 11 March 2016,


As Sheller notes, not even an island is an island, as it is constantly crossed and connected via flows of people, goods, information, and services: “Islands may appear to be contained spaces par excellence, … yet, at the same time, islanders dwell thanks to many different kinds of coming and going, pausing and waiting, producing a choreography of uneven spatialities and temporalities.” Sheller, “The Islanding Effect,” 186.


Hans De Smet, Patrick Lagadec, and Jan Leysen, “Disasters Out of the Box: A New Ballgame?” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management 20, no. 3 (2012): 138– 148, here 140–141; Matthewman, Disasters, Risks and Revelation, 67–94.


James Acton and Mark Hibbs, Why Fukushima Was Preventable (Washington, DC: Carnegie Papers, 2012), 18.


Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 40; Ulrich Beck, The Reinvention of Politics: Rethinking Modernity in the Global Social Order, trans. Mark Ritter (Cambridge, MA: Polity), 23; Brian Massumi, “Everywhere You Want to Be,” in The Politics of Everyday Fear, ed. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 3–38.


François Ewald, “Two Infinities of Risk,” in Massumi, The Politics of Everyday Fear, 225.


Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear: Risk-Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation (London: Continuum), 5.


Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (London: Verso, 2010), 328.


Beck, German Europe, 22–23.


Daniel P. Aldrich, “Rethinking Civil Society-State Relations in Japan after the Fukushima Accident,” Polity 45, no. 2 (2013): 249–264.


See, e.g., Charles Perrow, “Fukushima and the Inevitability of Accidents,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 67, no. 6 (2011): 44–52.


Steve Matthewman, “Accidentology: A Critical Assessment of Paul Virilio’s Political Economy of Speed,” Cultural Politics 9, no. 3 (2013): 280–295.


Sylvère Lotringer and Paul Virilio, The Accident of Art, trans. Mike Taormina (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2005), 100.


Here Manuel Castells highlights the same novelty: “What is specific to our world is the extension and augmentation of the body and mind of human subjects in networks of interaction powered by micro-electronics based, software operated, communication technologies.” Quoted in Urry, Climate Change and Society, 145.


Ibid., 45.


Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (New York: Basic Books, 1984).


Luc Boltanksi, Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), ix.


See, e.g., Anyaa Anim-Addo, William Hasty, and Kimberley Peters’s special issue on “The Mobilities of Ships and Shipped Mobilities,” Mobilities 9, no. 3 (2014).


Jeremy Harding, “Diary,” London Review of Books 34, no. 23 (6 December 2012): 42–43,


Jessica Battle, ed., Silent Invasion: The Spread of Marine Invasive Species via Ships’ Ballast Water (Gland: WWF International, 2009), 3, 1.


Viktoras Didžiulis, NOBANIS: Invasive Alien Species Fact Sheet—Mnemiopsis leidyi, Online Database of the European Network on Invasive Species,


Lisa-Ann Gershwin, Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 219.


Ibid., 48.


Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Ballantine Books, 1978), xiii, 93, 94.


Paul Virilio, “Unknown Quantity: Foreword,” trans. Chris Turner, an exposition conceived at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 29 November 2002 to 30 March 2003,;jsessionid =16B32F5971DDC1AB98601016B036E01D.


John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness (New York: Schoken, 1985), 306.


William T. Vollmann, “‘‘Barkskins,’ by Annie Proulx” New York Times, 17 June 2016,


Anthony Giddens, Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 78.


Kristine L. Pankow, Jeffrey R. Moore, J. Mark Hale, Keith D. Koper, Tex Kubacki, Katherine M. Whidden, and Michael K. McCarter, “Massive Landslide at Utah Copper Mine Generates Wealth of Geophysical Data,” GSA Today 24, no. 1 (2014): 4–9.


Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 108.


Marcus Eriksen, Laurent C. M. Lebreton, Henry S. Carson, Martin Thiel, Charles J. Moore, Jose C. Borerro, Francois Galgani, Peter G. Ryan, and Julia Reisser, “Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More Than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea,” PLoS ONE 9, no. 12 (2014): e111913, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111913.


Stuart Grey, “Space Debris 1957–2016 | Watching This Space – Episode 5,” YouTube video, 2:12, 1 August 2016, = O64KM4GuRPk.


Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 151; Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Ritter (Los Angeles: Sage, 1992), 180; Zygmunt Bauman, “No One Is in Control: That Is the Major Source of Contemporary Fear,” Guardian, 11 September 2011,


David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (London: Profile, 2014), 255.


Erle C. Ellis, Kees Klein Goldewijk, Stefan Siebert, Deborah Lightman, and Navin Ramankutty, “Anthropogenic Transformation of the Biomes, 1700 to 2000,” Global Ecology and Biogeography 19, no. 5 (2010): 589–606.


This “is unique in the history of the Earth: the expansion of an animal species with a population and brain large enough to challenge all competition in the ecosystem.” Susan W. Kieffer, Paul Barton, Ward Chesworth, Allison R. Palmer, Paul Reitan, and E-an Zen, Megascale Processes: Natural Disasters and Human Behavior, Special Paper 453 (Boulder, CO: Geological Society of America, 2009), 8. And see this scientific study of thriving animal populations in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which concluded that humans are worse for animals than radiation: T. G. Deryabina, S. V. Kuchmel, L. L. Nagorskaya, T. G. Hinton, J. C. Beasley, A. Lerebours, and J. T. Smith, “Long-Term Census Data Reveal Abundant Wildlife Populations at Chernobyl,” Current Biology 25, no. 19 (2015): R824–R826.


Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction, 19; emphasis added.


Anthony D. Barnosky, Nicholas Matzke, Susumu Tomiya, Guinevere O. U. Wogan, Brian Swartz, Tiago B. Quental, Charles Marshall, et al., “Has the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Event Already Arrived?” Nature 471, no. 7336 (2011), doi:10.1038/nature09678; Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, Robert M. Pringle, and Todd M. Palmer, “Accelerated Modern Human-Induced Species Losses: Entering the Sixth Mass Extinction,” Science Advances 1, no. 5 (2015): e1400253, doi:10.1126/sciadv.1400253.

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Contributor Notes

Steve Matthewman is Head of the sociology department at the University of Auckland and President of the Sociological Association of Aotearoa New Zealand. He is coeditor in chief of the Journal of Sociology. Teaching and research interests include the sociology of disasters, social theory, and science and technology studies. Recent publications include assessments of Ulrich Beck’s risk society thesis and the work of Bruno Latour, the need for a strong program to research the military, and a book on disasters. His latest research project looks at the rebuilding of Christchurch following the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. E-mail: