The 'Disaster' Disaster

"Republicans are facing an electoral disaster in November"
"This harsh new ad shows what a disaster Trump is for the GOP"
"Trump: Hillary Clinton's temperament is a 'disaster'"
"The Case Against Hillary: This is the Disaster Democrats Must Avoid"


--Recent headlines from various news sources.

It's not your imagination. The word disaster is being used more frequently both in print and on news and opinion programs. The cause of much of the recent hyperbole: The current dispiriting presidential campaign where there is a premium on extreme assertions combined with cable TV "news" stations where stories are always "breaking." Though what's usually breaking is a lot of wind.

More interesting is the fact that in modernity "disaster" has become more popular. A Google Ngram result shows that the frequency of the word's appearance in texts has more than doubled since 1800. Have there been more disasters in the past 200 years than there were in the previous two millennia of recorded history? Unlikely. The destruction of Pompeii, the Black Plague and the Lisbon Earthquake were pretty damn bad. All were catastrophes that involved great damage and loss of life. That, by the way, is what the word actually means.

In a sense there are more disasters now than there once were. They are now tied to human constructions and not only natural events alone. Because of the sheer complexity of human life with the advent of industrialization the risks have vastly intensified and diversified. We are far more reliant on imperfect machines and artificial systems than were our ancestors, and we often live in places and in ways that exacerbate these risks, like tall buildings on coastlines connected by electrical grids.

Perhaps the increasing frequency of the use of this work reflects these realities, as well as our unconscious appreciation of our vulnerability. Especially in industrialized countries one price of our far greater comfort, longevity, wealth and leisure time is the fragility of it all. The precautionary principle is related to disasters that take place as a result of human artifice, like the Bhopal gas tragedy in India. So gradually the word has come to have a more general reference than natural events.

But are the policies or actions of political figures really the "disaster" that their adversaries claim? Hardly. When the word is used that way we are meant to associate to tsunamis or collapsing buildings. The trouble is that if a word is used too loosely it may begin to lose its impact. If a point of view is thought to cause just as much harm as an earthquake or terrorist bombing these real disasters could come to seem less harmful.

And that would be a calamity.