A great, often sudden calamity.
A complete failure; a fiasco: The food was cold, the guests quarreled—the whole dinner was a catastrophe.
The concluding action of a drama, especially a classical tragedy, following the climax and containing a resolution of the plot.
A sudden violent change in the earth’s surface; a cataclysm.
Origin in English: 1540, “reversal of what is expected” (especially a fatal turning point in a drama), from Gk. katastrephein “to overturn,” from kata “down” + strephein “turn” (see strophe). Extension to “sudden disaster” is first recorded 1748.
(See more at dictionary.com)
Catastrophe is not a synonym for disaster. Nor is it just a really bad disaster. Catastrophe is measured less in lives lost or financial cost and much more in a consensus that the survivors’ future direction has been fundamentally altered.
By objective measure the death, injury, and destruction involved can be little out of the ordinary. But something in the time, place, or means of the event creates a shared sense of profound discontinuity. In a true catastrophe this discontinuity is confirmed by subsequent events.
In his analysis of tragedy, Aristotle explains that katastrophe (often translated as reversal of fortune), “is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite… Thus in the Oedipus, the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he is, he produces the opposite effect.” (Aristotle, Poetics XI)
Edmund Spenser adapted the Greek into English. For the contemporary of Shakespeare, poet, and critic, catastrophe is a final ending, a closing, and an explanation of what went on before. The theater of Spenser’s period often featured a sudden plot twist (the Greek strophe means to twist, turn, or plait). Spenser’s catastrophe explains the sudden shift. Today we would more likely use denouement – a French loan-word – for this purpose.
In 1755 Samuel Johnson explained in his Dictionary that, “catastrophe is the change or revolution which produces the final event of a dramatick piece, a final event, generally unhappy.” Notice the evolution. Catastrophe is no longer the explanation of the change, but the change itself. A change worthy of catastrophe is significant, unexpected, even revolutionary.
More recently Judge Richard Posner has written a catastrophe is, “an event that is believed to have a very low probability of materializing but that if it does materialize will produce harm so great and sudden as to seem discontinuous with the flow of events that preceded it.” (Catastrophe: Risk and Response). While less than elegant, Posner’s definition is helpful in highlighting how catastrophe is different from disaster:
- “low probability of materializing” and therefore unexpected, most of our disasters are not only expected, but seasonal.
- “harm so great and sudden” retrieves the ancient aspect of not just unexpected, but being precipitous and dramatic, and as a result having particular shock value.
- “as to seem discontinuous with the flow of events that preceded” is especially important in highlighting the key aspect of how the meaning of the event is perceived. Aristotle might ask, “Is the event understood as beginning, middle, or end?”
The National Response Framework defines catastrophe as, “any natural or manmade incident, including terrorism, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the population, infrastructure, environment, economy, national morale, and/or government functions.
The NRF definition has preserved some of the dramatic elements of catastrophe in pointing to extraordinary and severe outcomes. The shock value may be embedded in concern for “national morale.” But the NRF’s authors have neglected the role of surprise and the key role of a sudden shift in story-line, the reversal of what has been expected.
My own definition: A catastrophe is an event that involves an unusual scale of death, injury and destruction; experienced – directly or indirectly – across a broad scope of territory and/or by a substantial population; involving wide-spread secondary effects that amplify the original scope and scale of the event; perceived by most as a complete surprise; and which transforms the society’s sense of self (generally unhappy, but I am personally interested in how such reversal-of-fortune might also be for the good).
To engage the risk of catastrophe it is necessary to deal effectively with each of these issues: scale, scope, secondary effects, surprise, and the social definition of the event’s meaning. In scanning many so-called catastrophes, it seems to me that surprise and society’s perception of the event have the greatest influence. The less surprise, the more confident the society’s response; the more confident the society’s response, the less catastrophic the perceived results. The less catastrophic the perception, the more complete – and even improved – the recovery.
For further consideration:
Earthly Powers: Disasters are about People and Planning (The Economist, April 24, 2010)
Worst-Case Scenarios by Cass Sunstein
Catastrophe Theory by Vladimir I. Arnold
Reading List for a graduate course in catastrophe offered by The London Consortium.