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Environmental hazards and natural disasters


Note about author: Eric Pawson is Professor of Geography at the University of Canterbury. He counts environmental history and environmental management among his research interests. E-mail:


How can the apparently growing frequency and cost of environmental hazards be explained? Drawing on a range of examples, and especially the Canterbury earthquakes, it is argued that the creation of knowledge about these events depends on the interplay of lived and historical experience with scientific awareness. But often the vulnerability of places to particular events is obscured by popular use of the terms ‘natural hazard’ or ‘natural disaster’, as if human behaviour is absolved from any responsibility. It is shown how such thinking often increases the extent of the hazard, so that although we do not cause earthquakes, floods and bushfires, we are implicated and complicit in the outcomes.