Catastrophe: Community Resilience in the Face of Disaster

Spring 2017
Class Size: 75
Credits per quarter

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This program will explore the role of natural and human-made disasters—including earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, droughts, volcanic activity, landslides, wildfires, pandemics, wars, attacks, uprisings, and radioactive and toxic leaks—in shaping human society and consciousness. A central focus will be on how many of these place-based upheavals are becoming more common or intense in the climate crisis, and how communities can plan, respond, and adapt under new conditions. The program will apply the lessons from elsewhere in the world to locally in the Pacific Northwest.

On one hand, many so-called “natural” disasters have their roots in exploitation of the Earth and human beings, and social inequalities put the greatest burden of recovery on the poor (such as in earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal). “Disaster capitalism” is often used to centralize political and economic control in the aftermath of mass catastrophes, as Naomi Klein describes in The Shock Doctrine . These inequalities will be worsened as climate change generates more intense storms, sea-level rise, droughts, and flooding.

On the other hand, responses to disasters (such as hurricanes Katrina and Sandy) have become opportunities to build better relationships to each other and our ecosystems, as Rebecca Solnit describes in A Paradise Built in Hell . Planning for “disaster cooperativism” strengthens the ability of local communities and cultures to sustain shocks (such as climate change), unite communities across racial and cultural barriers, and promote greater social and ecological equality.

Our inquiry will draw insights from communities that have survived disasters and are recovering from historical trauma, including Indigenous and other colonized peoples, war refugees, and military veterans. It will learn from Indigenous epics that describe disasters through oral tradition, and methods of resilience that Native societies have used to persevere over the centuries. These insights will be explored through texts, lectures, workshops, field trips, films, art, and literature.

The program will explore how communities and nations can democratically prepare and practice for disasters, as Elaine Scarry describes in Thinking in an Emergency . Planners and activists can use emergency planning and response to increase awareness of ecological ways to prevent future disasters, the need to share resources among neighbors, and deepen lasting cooperation. In particular, climate change adaptation can be effectively used a reason to quickly make necessary changes for a healthier future that otherwise may take many more years to implement.

Our inquiry will be conducted at the intersections of climate justice studies, Native studies, and geography. It will use varied research methodologies as tools of inquiry, including ethnographic interviews that establish narratives (storytelling), community mapping, film analysis, government document research, and case studies of disasters. Students will have the opportunity to participate in community emergency response training.

This offering will prepare you for careers and advanced study in:

disaster preparedness, hazards and risk assessment, community development, and climate change adaptation and resilience.


Credits per quarter

Online learning:
  • Hybrid Online Learning - This offering delivers < 25% of its instruction online, rather than via face-to-face contact between you and your instructors.
Special expenses:

Students have may choose to register for 3-day Thurston County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training ($95).


$170 for 3-day field trip to Olympic Peninsula (Grays Harbor, and Quinault, Quileute, Makah nations).

Class Standing: Sophomore–Senior
Class Size: 75

Scheduled for: Day

Advertised schedule:

First class meeting: Tuesday, April 4 at 9:30am (Sem II B1105)

Located in: Olympia

2016-10-03Kristina Ackely joined the teaching team.
2016-02-03New spring opportunity added.