Tag Archives: disaster memory

Disaster Memory

Guest post from Erin Bohensky & Anne Leitch

We have recently created a new blog “Disaster Memory: Understanding social memory of extreme events and disasters” (http://disastermemory.wordpress.com/) to explore how human experience of extreme weather and natural disasters is encoded and archived in memory; how individual and collective memory of past events is recalled to make sense of present experience; and how these processes shape society’s responses to natural disasters. The blog provides a space for exploration and exchange of ‘disaster memory’ stories, and in doing so illuminates avenues for learning.


One of the themes currently under discussion in the blog is the role of culture and national identity in disaster memory: in Australia the State Emergency Service (SES) volunteers are in the front line of disaster response and therefore in the front line of experiential learning. Photo by Anne Leitch.

Local, place-based knowledge about social-ecological systems is thought to build resilience to uncertainty and rapid change, such as that posed by natural disasters. Learning from such knowledge is considered critical for societies living in disaster-prone areas such as coastlines, floodplains and peri-urban bushland. Less widely appreciated are the processes by which knowledge is harnessed to respond to disasters. Among these is social memory—“the long-term communal understanding of the dynamics of environmental change, and the transmission of the pertinent experience (McIntosh 2000:24)”—that becomes salient as societies anticipate and recover from disaster events.

While disaster management and risk reduction are expanding to encompass the role of human agency and behaviour, these domains can benefit further from the various scholarly traditions on knowledge and memory and how they relate to resilience. For example, anthropology recognises knowledge as fluid and embedded in social and cultural practice, rather than a static repository of past responses to disturbances without historical context. Cognitive psychology approaches appreciate that memory includes the subjective experience of remembering and that memory is prone to distortions. However, how memory scales up to larger social groups and social-ecological systems and is harnessed in times of need is not always evident. To understand how knowledge may be more effectively brought to bear on disaster resilience we argue that a deeper conceptualisation of knowledge is needed that spans disciplinary boundaries and communities of practice to consider how knowledge is encoded in memory at and across multiple scales. “Disaster Memory” intends to explore this through a series of case studies of different types of disasters around the globe.

We will be chairing a session at Resilience 2014, called “Knowledge for disaster resilience: Exploring memory, governance and resilience in practice” on Tuesday 6 May at 3:40-4:40pm.


McIntosh, R. J. 2000. Climate, history and human action. Pages 1–42 in R. J. McIntosh, J. A. Tainter, and S. K. McIntosh, editors. The Way the Wind Blows: Climate, History and Human Action. Columbia University Press, New York, New York, USA.



Seven Reflections on Disasters and resilience from around the web

1) The Boston Globe’s Big Picture photo blog has pictures of Japan one month after the quake & tsunami

2) Andy Revkin comments on DotEarth on the limits of Japan’s disaster memory in response to a fascinating Associated Press article by by Jay AlabasterTsunami-hit towns forgot warnings from ancestors.

3) And Andy Revkin also wonder’s whether nuclear power is simply too brittle to be a resilient power source.

4) Richard A. Kerr writes in Science Magazine article Long Road to U.S. Quake Resilience about recent NRC report that argues that it is underfunding programs to develop resilience to Earthquakes.

5) New York Times on how Danger Is Pent Up Behind Aging Dams. Apparently of the USA’s 85,000 dams, more than 4,400 are considered susceptible to failure, but governments cannot agree on who should pay for renovations.

6) Bob Costanza and others write in Solutions magazine on Solutions for Averting the Next Deepwater Horizon.  They argues that sensible resource development should require resource developers to purchase disaster bonds to capture true social costs of resource development

7) In New York Times Leslie Kaufman writes on complexity and resilience of Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystems response to BP Oil Spill.