The Duck of Minerva

Natural Disasters and Political Outcomes

30 August 2005

News from the deep south just gets worse and worse. The good news is that the Federal Government is mobilizing its resources, with some possible caveats, along with other groups and organizations throughout the nation.

On that note, let us take a moment to praise the advantages of economies of scale and remember why the balance of political power has, for good reason, tipped towards the federal government (and away from the states) over the last century.

While we’re doing so, let’s also engage in some collective action and donate some money to the American Red Cross. Our fellow citizens are going to need a lot of help.

I’ve been reading stories about the economic and political implications of the hurricane. Climate and weather, let alone natural disasters, profoundly influence international and domestic politics. Bad harvests often made the difference between the rise and fall of empires. Plagues shape the history of states, regions, and continents. There is a fair amount of evidence that the eruption of Krakatoa in 553 had a major impact on Eurasian social and political history.

Political scientists – unlike historians, natural scientists, and demographers – have very little to say about natural disasters. Events like Katrina are, from our perspective, exogenous to what we study: the activities and decisions of human beings. It is possible, of course, to include climate, natural disasters, geography, and other forces (more-or-less) external to everyday political agency in data sets as independent variables. But finding correlations between, say, tsunamis and civil-war termination only gets us so far. The interesting question is how to incorporate such exogenous forces into accounts of political behavior.

Any thoughts? My own sense is that we ought to be able to generalize about how different kinds of political structures – state forms, movement organizations, and so forth – react to and are influenced differently by specific kinds of natural disasters and exogenous natural processes. Certainly, many political scientists and economists (e.g., Amartya Sen) have done this kind of work in studying the causes of famines.

I also think it would be interesting to try to generate a list of natural disasters that shaped political outcomes – particularly in transformative ways. If you have examples, feel free to post them in the comments section.