New book explores history of disasters in Australia and New Zealand

Historians, geographers and media scholars on the lessons we can learn from past disasters.

New book explores the history of disasters in Australia and New Zealand

The history of bushfires, floods, cyclones and earthquakes in Australia and New Zealand is the focus of a new book co-edited by University of Wollongong (UOW) historian Dr Scott McKinnon.

Disasters in Australia and New Zealand: Historical Approaches to Understanding Catastrophe (Palgrave MacMillan 2020), offers the first edited collection of scholarly research on disaster history in Australia and New Zealand.

The book, co-edited by Dr Margaret Cook (University of the Sunshine Coast), will be launched online this Thursday (2 July) by leading environmental historian Emeritus Professor Tom Griffiths.

Dr McKinnon, from UOW’s School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, says many factors increase our vulnerability to disasters in Australia and New Zealand, including climate change and housing growth in high-risk areas.

“We need to be thinking about major policy change to mitigate the impacts of future disasters, but after each bushfire, flood or cyclone, the political discussion moves on quickly to other matters,” he said.

“This year has been an extreme example. There were devastating bushfires from which thousands of people are still recovering, but the fires are easily forgotten during a deadly pandemic.

“The book brings together work by historians, geographers and media scholars to think about the lessons we might learn in the present from disasters in the past. As historians, we are interested in keeping memory of these events alive so that we don’t just return to a status quo that is going to leave more people vulnerable.”

The book is a collection of essays that were written after a workshop, co-convened by Dr McKinnon and Dr Cook, at the Australian Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space (ACCESS) in mid-2019. Nine researchers from Australia and New Zealand attended the workshop and the resulting essays discuss floods, earthquakes, bushfires and cyclones.

The book covers Australia’s deadliest disaster, Cyclone Mahina in 1899; as well as the 1989 Newcastle earthquake; the 2003 ACT firestorm; the 2009 Black Saturday fires; and the 2011 Queensland floods. Themes include discussion of Indigenous understandings of fire and flood, migrant experiences of bushfire in Australia and the politics of prescribed burning.

Dr McKinnon says the disasters we’ve faced in the past six months alone have prompted an interest in disaster histories as people look to the past to try and make sense of difficult times.

“We hope the book provides valuable information and encourages some serious conversations about how we confront the challenges of a changing environment.”

You can register for the online launch here.

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