Instability, Community, and Catastrophism

The theory of catastrophism has fascinated me while reading The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. This idea, which Nur and Burgess describe as the “sudden, typically unpredicted natural disaster that leads to abrupt changes in a culture or lifestyle that has been stable for a long time”, is heavily debated by geologists, archaeologists, and other scientific professionals. Catastrophism, due to its nature, is a difficult concept to prove and to use to justify the collapse of societies. After talking about this theory in class, many of my classmates came to the conclusion that catastrophism definitely plays a role in the destruction of societal stability, but only because there was a factor before the natural disaster that was already causing weakness and vulnerability to collapse. How much instability is enough for a large-scale disaster to be the breaking point, and what causes this instability? There are places in the modern world that can easily recover and rebuild from events such as an earthquake, while other places, such as Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, take years to recover and are never truly the same. 

N.K. Jemisin takes this idea of catastrophism and twists it slightly, because the people in the world in which she has created expect this catastrophism to occur. Collapse of society, whether on a large scale or occurring in individual comms (towns), is always a possibility. This world experiences what Jemisin has named “Fifth Seasons”, which are essentially periods of apocalypse. Because all of these people are aware of this very real possibility that the world around them could shift at any moment, they are more prepared to handle this. They do what they can to survive, often resulting in violence and unrest. This concept has been difficult for me to grasp, because although they expect these “seasons” to occur, that doesn’t change the fact that this has incredible effects on their society and livelihoods. I began connecting this idea to areas that are prone to natural disasters. In many of these areas, there is a clear link between poverty and events beyond control. 

Jemisin explores the question: How does a LACK of justice lead to an increase in catastrophism? Additionally, how does power lessen the effects of a catastrophic event? One could compare a “Fifth Season” to a period after a natural disaster hits, as they are caused by seismic activity. The true problem, in the aftermath, lies within the leadership. When leaders do not have a solid plan, societies fall apart. Within the world of The Fifth Season, Jemisin makes the leadership feel almost mysterious. There are obviously people in power, but it is not obvious who holds the most power. This makes me think that when a season does occur, the comms with the best leaders are the only ones that survive. However, survival also is dependent on resources. Many of the people have “runny-sacks”, as Jemisin calls them, filled with necessities for the start of a season. This is on the individual level, however, and can be compared to people in our actual world preparing for a catastrophe. It is relatively easy to look at a survival guide, based on your physical location on Earth, and know what you need to prepare. However, having these resources readily available is difficult for many communities of people, especially people living in poverty. Not only is it difficult for people living in poverty to acquire these resources, but it is also difficult to communicate with them in the event of a natural disaster. On a larger scale, countries must have the resources to help the areas affected. Justice plays an important role in situations like these. Gerrymandering in America immediately comes to mind, as this system makes it incredibly difficult for minority groups to receive assistance during and after a natural disaster. There are groups established to help people leave their homes, but they are left helpless after it is over. 

Jemisin makes it obvious through one of the main characters that being in a comm during a season is crucial to survival. She states, “All of them had the look you’re starting to identify as slow building panic. Because everyone’s starting to realize what the shake and the redglow and the clouded sky all mean, and to be on the outside of a community’s gates at a time like this is – in the long run – a death sentence, except for a handful who are willing to become brutal enough or depraved enough to do what they must. Even those only have a chance at survival”. A stable society offers protection, and clearly the people of this world consider this incredibly important. Homeless people, in our world, are offered no protection from the elements and little is done to help them. From what I understand and have read about in the past, homeless shelters are often crowded and unhelpful. As far as infrastructure, many cities have put ‘anti-homeless’ architecture in place. With that being said, cities can possibly be considered unstable in of themselves, because of the (typically) large homeless population and large amount of people.

The Columbia Climate School states that an earthquake hitting New York City is not an impossibility. I believe that this would be a catastrophic event, as most New Yorkers are not prepared for this at all. This is interesting to explore, because I wouldn’t consider New York City an unstable area. So, maybe, it is not the degree of instability that matters when it comes to catastrophism. An unexpected natural disaster, like an earthquake, would hit everyone in New York City equally.  The ways in which people respond to it is determined by justice and power. The wealthy would be able to easily leave, while those living in poverty would have no choice but to stay. Wealthy people are able to “escape”, while the terrible effects of catastrophism, like panic and unrest, only affect those with no power. 

The severity of catastrophism is determined by many, many factors. Jemisin explores this theory of catastrophism by establishing a world in which disaster and ruin are heavily influenced by power and justice. People must take advantage of others in order to survive the season and lessen the effects of catastrophism. Does this happen in our world, too?

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