Thursday, August 27, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Wexelblat disaster

A beach after an oil spillImage via Wikipedia
Wexelblat disaster (n.) - A natural disaster whose effects are magnified by human intervention, usually because a human construct is damaged by the initial natural disaster, and the fallout from the destruction of the human construct is far worse than the damage caused by the natural event. For example, a storm that capsizes an oil tanker will inflict far more damage via the oil spill (the human construct) than the natural event (the storm).

The term is named after MIT scholar Alan Wexelblat who sketched out the concept, though he called it a Viridian Disaster in reference to Bruce Sterling's Viridian Design Movement. Unfortunately, Wexelblat did too good a job of evangelizing the concept because it became synonymous with his name.

Moreover, Wexelblat disasters have become a key point of criticism of large-scale technology, particularly because second-order effects of technical achievements are not taken into consideration. The Washington Post has a nice list of Wexelblat disasters, and it's great fodder for story ideas if nothing else.

I bring it up because: Four years ago this week, the levees broke in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina. This tragedy is now held up as the quintessential Wexelblat disaster, as the flooding of the lower wards of New Orleans was a direct result of failing to consider the consequences of levee engineering and wetland removal. The fictive theorization of possible Wexelblat disasters is not just the basis of new and interesting sci-fi disaster novels but a key academic pursuit for the coming century. Plus, it's fun to say.
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