Published: July 31, 2017

Earlier this year, The Journal of Asian Studies, one of the premier publications in the field of Asian Studies, published a special section on the 2014 CAS Symposium: Catastrophic Asia. The researchers participating in this symposium sought to explore Asian vulnerability to, experiences with, and recovery from natural and/or human-induced environmental disasters such as seismic events, extreme climate events, pollution events, and the broader environmental and social challenges presented by a warming planet, including economic, demographic, epidemiological, and political threats. The special section features three articles written by participants of the symposium, two commentary articles by CU Professors Dr. Donna Goldstein and Dr. Emily Yeh, and an introductory article by CAS Director and Professor of Geography Dr. Tim Oakes which has been made free to the public. Professor Oakes' introduction adeptly outlines the questions raised over the course of the symposium and the value of approaching the topic of disaster in Asia through an interdisciplinary lens. Professor Oakes notes in his introduction:

"As readers will readily discover in the papers and commentaries that follow, a key tension pervades the entire project of Catastrophic Asia. In our attempt at a transdisciplinary conversation, we found ourselves running up against a perennial area studies question: what, if anything, is gained by exploring the universal theme of disaster from the arguably arbitrary perspective of one particular area of the globe? To what extent does the “Asianness” of catastrophe matter? On the one hand, catastrophe has been on the minds of Asianists a great deal over the past few years. This is no doubt due, in part, to the triple-catastrophe of March 11, 2011: the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis at Fukushima. But to this we could add a whole list of morbid events: the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, “superstorm” Haiyan’s devastation of the Philippines in 2013, China’s chronic “airpocalypse” conditions that have been compared to a “nuclear winter,” recent flooding in Myanmar and Bangladesh (and China and Indonesia), the eruption of Mt. Ontake, and the slow-motion catastrophe that sea-level rise promises to bring to billions of vulnerable Asians. The list could go on, but at some point the impulse to account for such catastrophes in Asia becomes a dubious project of propping up, once again, the distinctness and even separateness of a unique swath of the Earth known as “Asia,” rendering it a coherent and meaningful object of study (cf. Oakes 2009). There is nothing particularly compelling about the fact that Asia hosts its share of disaster, suffering, and misery. To consider the Asian dimensions of catastrophe, then, is to risk neglecting the fundamental fact that all humans are biophysically vulnerable to disaster in the same ways, no matter where they live.

Nevertheless, themes of Asian disaster, risk, and vulnerability have been prominent recently among various Asia-based research venues, such as ARI’s Disaster Governance project already mentioned. The year 2014 saw a burst of disaster-related projects in the Asian academy, including Ateneo de Manila University’s conference on disasters in historical and comparative perspective and the University of Kerala’s conference on “Disaster, Risk, and Vulnerability.” The 2014 Pritzker Award—the top international architectural prize—went to Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, largely because of his work designing temporary shelters for natural disaster victims in Japan, China, India, New Zealand, Haiti, Turkey, and Rwanda. That same year, in addition to our own Catastrophic Asia symposium, Columbia University hosted a conference on “Catastrophe and Aesthetics: The Arts after Fukushima.” And Ted Bestor’s 2013 Presidential Address to the Association for Asian Studies explored the “cultural biographies of disasters,” considering in insightful and provocative ways how catastrophes can be viewed as cultural events with their own biographical trajectories that shape cultural landscapes; senses of place; and collective memories, values, and senses of morality for generations (Bestor 2013). Catastrophic Asia thus emerged during what seems to be an intellectual shift of sorts: a focus on the “Asianness” of catastrophe, in which it is increasingly noted by scholars and popular media pundits alike that Asia is disproportionately vulnerable to disaster (WHO 2014), that its risk of catastrophe somehow brings Asia to the foreground of discussions of global problems associated with, for example, climate change, sea-level rise, and rising toxicity."

Thanks to all of our symposium participants and congratulations on this exciting publication! 

For the rest of Professor Oakes' article and the most recent edition of The Journal of Asian Studies, please see here