Without the Cretaceous extinction — 65 million years ago — mammals would have been kept in their place, mostly at the low-end of the large reptile food chain. The elimination of predators gave our ancestors an opportunity to move up.
Less than a mass extinction, the eruption of the Toba supervolcano was plenty bad. Only about 10,000 homo sapiens survived. In the subsequent 73,000 years we’ve made up the loss. A similar eruption will eventually recur.
Very low frequency, very high consequence: This is one aspect of catastrophe.
There are also events that occur with more frequency and less consequence that many still perceive as catastrophic: the Babylonian Captivity (6th Century BCE), Sack of Rome (410 CE), Siege of Baghdad (1258 CE) are three examples. In each of these cases the catastrophe extends beyond the immediate event to the long-term cultural consequences of the event.
The complete destruction of Baghdad produced a very different Islamic worldview. The Visigoth entry through the Salarian gate was mild compared to what the Mongols did to Baghdad, yet the desecration of Rome was widely seen as closing the door to one era and opening a door to something very different. The Judaism emerging from the exile of elites to Babylon was not the Judaism of the First Temple.
A catastrophe is not only a matter of numbers killed or property destroyed, it involves a fundamental shift in direction or perception, well outside pre-event expectations.
As the Baghdad, Rome, and Babylon examples also suggest, catastrophe is often a culminating event. The catastrophic shift is the outcome of long-time trends — perhaps hidden, denied, or resisted — coming together in a moment of critical clarity.
Over the centuries Black Death has decimated many cities and regions. But the pandemic of the mid-14th Century — killing 30 to 60 percent of Europeans — had an especially significant scope, scale and influence, transforming cultural, economic, and political foundations. The Renaissance can be seen as a consequence of this catastrophic event.
The conquest of the Americas by Europeans was massively assisted by the pandemic wave that killed tens-of-thousands and disrupted indigenous structures well in advance of face-to-face first contact. William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation wrote that the victims, “fell down so generally of this disease as they were in the end not able to help one another, no not to make a fire nor fetch a little water to drink, nor any to bury the dead.” The pilgrims inherited cleared fields and their village site from those killed by Old World germs.
New England was the new normal emerging from this catastrophic event.
Comparatively low-consequence events can also lead to the emergence of a new normal. The death toll from 9/11 was just shy of 3000, considerably less than any of the previous examples. But decisions undertaken in the aftermath of 9/11 — political, legal, military, and more — have arguably initiated a fundamental shift, the shape of which is still taking form.
The choices we make in response to an event can determine whether or not it is catastrophic.
In its classical Greek meaning, catastrophe is a decisive turn in a dramatic plot, typically sudden, sharp, and surprising. The outcome is usually unhappy for the play’s hero, overturning prior expectations held by both hero and audience.
In the real-world examples above prior expectations are overturned. But unlike the ancient dramas, most actual catastrophes play out over time. To those experiencing the shift, it might be barely noticed (slowly boiling frogs?) or vaguely understood. In some cases the critical event is less the cause of catastrophe than an explicit confirmation of an implicit transformation long-underway.
Results of a catastrophe can be mixed. Death, injury and destruction are regular features, but the new normal unfolding from the catastrophe is not always worse than what preceded it. Results may bifurcate. Aztec v Spaniard or mammal v reptile. One creature’s catastrophe may be another’s opportunity.
Bad can also unfold into much worse. The collapse of reactionary European monarchies created a new normal exploited by Fascism, spawning the Holocaust, and unleashing a global war of unprecedented destructiveness. Inevitable? No. Related? Certainly.
Proposition: What we call homeland security is a catastrophic consequence of the 9/11 attack.
In this usage catastrophic is not a pejorative, it is a description of an atypically radical shift in perception and behavior from one condition to another very different condition.
Hypothesis: The velocity of a catastrophic shift is correlated with two factors: 1) preexisting systemic resilience and 2) the intentionality of post-catastrophe response. The more resilience and intentionality depend on control mechanisms, the greater velocity of change. The more resilience and intentionality are predisposed to creative adaptation, the velocity of change is reduced.
This is the first in a series of posts considering the relationship of catastrophe to homeland security. The series is conceived as an open and conversational exploration. Proving the null hypothesis or refining the hypothesis is as helpful as presuming to prove the hypothesis. I don’t pretend to know where this may end up. I am sure the exploring will be more interesting and fruitful with the benefit of your comments and critiques. Please join in.