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Decade of Disaster

Vibha Arora reviews Ann Larabee’s book, Decade of Disaster. Below is an excerpt from Reconstruction:

High-risk technologies cannot prevent, predict, or contain disasters while discourses about such disasters exhibit uncontrolled interpretive possibilities. There is no safe haven, no place that can be free of technological disasters, and such ‘unnecessary’ violence. What we can plan are escape routes and lifeboats that may rescue us occasionally and fail at other times. Paradoxically lifeboats, radars, containment measures, meters, backup systems cannot shelter all of us from technological risk. Is this the meaning of civilization and human progress? We need to question not merely high-risk technology and its engendered profit but the cultural future premised on such technological risk and the effective normative normalization of a risk society that sociologist Ulrich Beck theorized in his book Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity.

As the age of limits, the 1980’s witnessed the emergence of discourse on technological failure and the cultural work of surviving within such life worlds. What do release of methyl isocynate (MIC) at Bhopal, the Exxon Valdez spill, the meltdown at Chernobyl, the Challenger space shuttle’s fiery crash, the failure of public health agencies to control the AIDS epidemic have in common? These five disasters that occurred in the eighties provide the context and framework of Larabee’s book aptly titled Decade of Disaster. All the five disasters have unquestionably destabilized our implicit faith in the technologically mediated life-world and shattered any rosy picture of a global future. Neither of these can be categorized as natural and unavoidable, since they are indisputably caused by anthropogenic factors. Passionately researched, lucidly written, evocatively illustrated Decade of Disaster analyses the formation and silencing embedded in disaster narratives with the survivor’s reconstruction of an indisputably altered everyday life world. Many people who suffered and survived these aforementioned disasters continue to struggle and demand justice: Bhopal for instance is not a distant memory but a living reality for us all in India.

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