Weakness, Instability, and Love: Catastrophism in Stable Socieites

The theory of Catastrophism, as defined by Nur and Burgess, is the “sudden, typically unpredicted natural disaster that leads to abrupt changes in a culture or lifestyle that has been stable for a long time”. I explored this geological and social phenomenon heavily in my ThinkING essay, published in late February, in relation to The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. However, after completing Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, I have since reflected on the idea of change. I have come to the conclusion that change, no matter how abrupt or disagreeable, is not always a bad thing. With that being said, I do not believe that Catastrophism, which can cause substantial distress and destruction of societal stability, always results in a negative transformation of the lives of all people in a community.

 In my original essay, I stated 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”. After reading not only what I wrote, but also Jemisin’s trilogy in its entirety, the idea of weakness is something that I have pondered over. An idea that has fascinated me is whether a LACK of power and justice- two very big themes within The Broken Earth trilogy- are the cause of weakness within societies. This changes my original hypothesis, as weakness is not instability. A society can be weak and have internal weaknesses but be incredibly stable. Originally I equated weakness and instability, using them interchangeably as synonyms. Jemisin’s work has taught me that these two words, and social constructs, are not the same at all. Within the third and last book in the trilogy, The Stone Sky, Jemisin introduces the reader to the idea of civilization before The Stillness, which is the ‘current’ world that the trilogy is set in. When describing the city, she describes a place that sounds almost mythical, “And Syl Anagist lives… in bustling streets and ceaseless commerce and buildings that your mind would struggle to define as such… vehicles…No steam or chemical fuels them…” (Jemisin). Jemisin wrote this city to model a SolarPunk aesthetic, which can be considered beautiful, green and highly technologically advanced. In other words, this city comes across as extremely stable. However, I have established that stability does not mean strength. Within this society, we are also introduced to a group of people, the Tuners, being oppressed and used as slaves, “We are the deficient ones, after all, stripped of much that would’ve made us human” (Jemisin). The Tuners were used for their abilities while being stripped of their humanity. This is where the internal weakness of this seemingly powerful society, Syl Anagist, lies. In order to keep their society running and uphold their impressive infrastructure, Syl Anagist took advantage of and persecuted the Tuners. These people were used as a resource, and without them the community would fall apart at the seams. Moving forward in time, society was also weak when the Fulcrum was a highly functioning body. The trilogy’s main character, Essun, experienced life at the Fulcrum and worked for the Fulcrum from childhood to young adulthood. Society at this point in time was incredibly stable, as guardians and the leadership caste were able to control Orogenes- those with incredible powers- and use them to their benefit. They were, like the Tuners, slaves. The oppression of the Tuners at the time of Syl Anagist and the oppression of Orogenes during the Fulcrum’s existence are extremely reflective of one another. Society was weak during both of these time periods, as the people in power were not the most powerful people, and the most powerful people were being taken advantage of. I assert, then, that oppression makes a society WEAK, but not necessarily unstable. 

Returning once again to my ThinkING essay, I posed the questions: Does a LACK of justice lead to an increase in Catastrophism, and how does it do so? Although I would still respond to this question with an immediate “YES”, the “how” portion of the question has evolved and shifted, shaped by new knowledge I gained through reading The Broken Earth trilogy. I no longer would argue that “Fifth Seasons”, periods of dramatized apocalypse, cause Catastrophism. Society changes during these periods due to the increased difficulty to survive, and therefore an increase in the survival instincts of the people within. However, social norms are upheld. During these phases, Orogenes are still oppressed and looked at differently. They are feared due to their immense power, but also utilized for their abilities to stop or lessen the effects of natural disasters. This fact does not change in The Stillness, no matter if a “Fifth Season” is occurring or not. By definition, because society’s views as a whole do not change, and there is no philosophical revolution, “Fifth Seasons” cannot be considered Catastrophism. What does cause Catastrophism however, in The Stillness and Syl Anagist alike, is a lack of justice. When people who lack justice want to gain justice, this is the sole cause of Catastrophism, or the “how” component of the original question I posed. During the “Fifth Seasons”, that spark is not present. People are simply attempting to survive, and are not focused on changing the way they are treated. We are made to believe that, until Essun, no Orogene has been able to change society and cause Catastrophism. They simply accept their oppression due to the need for survival, or are not powerful enough to bring about change, “They’re afraid because we exist, she says. There’s nothing we did to provoke their fear, other than exist. There’s nothing we can do to earn their approval, except stop existing – so we can either die like they want, or laugh at their cowardice and go on with our lives” (Jemisin). We see, especially in The Stone Sky, how a lack of justice increases Catastrophism when people are powerful enough to cause it. It may even be argued that, in the fictional world created by Jemisin, Catastrophism was the only feasible way that power could be used to gain justice, as she states, “But for a society built on exploitation, there is no greater threat than having no one left to oppress” (Jemisin). 

As Jemisin has proved to readers, Catastrophism does not always result in ruin- whether that be physical or societal. This complicated geological phenomenon can be the sole cause of a group of oppressed people gaining justice, which most (unless you are on the side of the oppressor) consider to be an incredibly positive change. Catastrophism, which I believe can be considered a movement, needs a catalyst. Within Jemisin’s books, the catalyst she, and her characters, choose to explore quite often is LOVE. Love makes everything more complicated but yet is often the reason people choose to fight back. Essun endured many hardships throughout The Broken Earth trilogy, including losing her children. Her motivator for the Catastrophism that she caused was the LOVE for her children, and all other Orogene children in The Stillness. Jemisin makes it clear that this is Essun’s ‘why’, “For how many centuries has the world killed rogga children so that everyone else’s children can sleep easy?” (Jemisin). Essun is fighting not for herself, but for the greater good of her people and because of the love she has for them. Therefore, love can start a revolution. 

People who have power can always change the world, whether for the right reasons or the wrong reasons. In this case, Jemisin proves to readers that justice can be gained through Catastrophism, and all it takes is one person. Because of this trilogy, and Jemisin’s beautifully crafted writing, my definitions of power and justice have changed drastically. Power is a spectrum, as opposed to a negative attribute. Within the books, there were many people who held power that can be considered the ‘villains’ within this world, but there were also many people who were extremely powerful that can be considered the protagonists. All people in this trilogy had power in some shape or form. One group of people had power that was upheld due to societal beliefs, while other people had power due to physical abilities. This power, no matter the source, can be used to bring about change, whether positive or negative. Because my definitions have changed, I have begun to look at American society very differently. One could argue that American society is stable based on a variety of factors (the economy, education, job opportunities, etc.). But, in my opinion, society is incredibly weak. Very recently, we have learned that the Supreme Court wishes to overturn an important decision, Roe v. Wade. This, in turn, takes rights away from people who need reproductive care. Therefore, there is a group of people who are lacking justice. By my definition, this makes our country extremely weak, and consequently vulnerable to change. This change, although unlikely on this big of a scale, could be brought about by Catastrophism. Here, we see the spectrum of power, as citizens are using their power (in numbers) to influence people in powerful positions (the Supreme Court). Even in this very real situation, LOVE can be considered a motivator. People who are fighting for these rights are both fighting for themselves and fighting for others that they care about. Thus, love (along with many, many other factors) is a catalyst even in our world. As Jemisin states, “…demand the impossible. It isn’t right, they whisper, weep, shout; what has been done to them is not right. They are not inferior. They do not deserve it. And so it is the society that must change. There can be peace this way, too, but not before conflict. No one reaches this place without a false start or two” (Jemisin). 

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?