Disaster Theory

by Mark Rowe

Author: David Etkin

ISBN No: 97801 28002278

Review date: 11/12/2023

No of pages: 386

Publisher: Butterworth-Heinemann

Publisher URL:

Year of publication: 25/06/2015


Disaster Theory: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Concepts and Causes, by David Etkin. ISBN 97801 28002278. Published 2015 by: Butterworth-Heinemann, 386 pages, visit elsevier.com.



Disaster Theory: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Concepts and Causes, by David Etkin. ISBN 97801 28002278. Published 2015 by: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Most welcome for a book from a North American is a perspective that goes beyond the United States. Perhaps because the author is Canadian, and has worked as a metereologist, David Etkin takes what could be a dry subject and writes in engaging ways. He takes us back to the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon and even the burning of the great ancient library of Alexandria, and makes them relevant to us. He’s right up to date with modern heatwaves, hurricanes, ice storms and landslides, and 9-11. You might wonder what a chapter is doing with the title ‘The poetry of disaster’, but it makes sense as people seek ways to express pain, and to seek meaning. To cope, in other words. A flood or fire that destroys something precious, buildings or people, isn’t only a matter of recovering and re-building (if you can re-build lost people). Likewise in the rush to save lives and minimise misery after a disaster, you might ask what’s the point of a chapter on ethics. Again, Etkin has his reasons: “Understanding ethical considerations is fundamental to understanding disasters.”

Disasters and response to them throw up ethical dilemmas, and there’s no single right answer, or easy trade-off. After an earthquake creates an urgent need for shelter for the victims, do you try to build permanent housing (though it’ll take longer) or temporary settlements (which meet needs sooner, but have a habit of staying there). From the title, you could easily be put off by a ‘theory’ book, and once inside the author delves into and swims among some deep topics, that you might think are out of place compared with the imperative to meet needs after a disaster. Not so. Etkin shows that you have to plan for a disaster, and to work according to guiding principles. How do you decide who to evacuate and who not? Who do you trust and co-operate with (given that modern media-publicised disasters may have far more agencies involved than a disaster zone can handle)? If critical infrastructures that we rely on and miss in a crisis are privately owned, what’s the social contract? What’s the deal?

Etkin makes a well-argued, learned and readable case for studying and planning for disasters, because they are part of what makes us human, and not something narrow that erupts and is knocked back down again. Like others in the field he suggests that if anything disasters will become worse (megadisasters) thanks to climate change, more people in cities, and the sheer complexity of global life. Disasters, he teaches us, are a challenge: “Disasters challenge our deeply held beliefs about the safeness of our world and our place in it, and can require us to shift our worldviews.” Etkin likes the concept of resilience, but warns against jumping on its bandwagon, and overlooking other aids to understanding, such as vulnerability.

Altogether a thought-provoking book worth a look by far more people than those interested in the subject of the title and sub-title.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter to stay on top of security news and events.

© 2023 Professional Security Magazine. All rights reserved.

Website by MSEC Marketing