Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God–Source Reception

Steinberg, Ted. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (2nd Edition). Cary, NC: Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.

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Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America discusses disasters in America and argues that the U.S. political economy is often most responsible for the destruction caused by “natural” disasters. Utilizing a series of case studies of different disasters or disaster-prone areas from across the nation, Steinberg calls into question the very essence of natural disasters by claiming that various political and corporate leaders blame nature for these events in order to advance their own agendas. Making no attempt to hide his political agenda, Steinberg asks questions such as: Are disasters acts of God or acts of man? What human social or economic forces are to blame? Who is most vulnerable in disaster events and why? This final question identifies a central theme to Steinberg’s work: vulnerability. In each of his case studies he discusses the socioeconomic or minority group that is most susceptible to the effects of disaster and how local, state, and federal governments have neglected to adequately address this disproportionate exposure.

As it has been almost a decade since the second edition of Acts of God was published, it was not difficult to track down a number of reviews of Steinberg’s work. The book has found scholarly readership in a number of disciplines, and the reception appears to be overwhelmingly positive. In the Journal of American History, historian J. Brooks Flippen states that Steinberg “delves deeper into the question of man’s complicity, with the result an intriguing study that harshly indicts economic and political interests in perpetuating a flawed approach to nature.”[1] Similarly, in Environmental History, Nnted environmental historian Martin Melosi stated that, “The lessons and caveats outlined in this book are well worth heeding.”[2] Beyond the field of history, Acts of God also garnered attention from Georgia State professor Ann-Margaret Esnard in the Journal of the American Planning Association, and David M. Clarke, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oxford in Risk Analysis: An International Journal. Though the majority of reviewers note Steinberg’s direct, no holds barred approach, none seem to fault him for identifying a very significant and very relevant issue concerning disasters in the United States. It is, perhaps, of some interest that I was unable to track down a counterargument or critical response from any of the powerful elite that Steinberg specifically called out. However, this may be an indication that the book has yet to reach a more political audience.

Given the topic matter and Steinberg’s own assessment of his perspective as “a materialist one” that will “no doubt strike some readers as a bit old-fashion in light of the postmodern approaches to history so popular today,” it is difficult to know if Steinberg’s readership reached beyond a scholarly audience.[3] Though Acts of God easily appeals to historians of an urban or environmental background, it additionally warrants attention from academics interested in public policy, risk assessment and management, natural science, meteorology, and urban planning. Furthermore, the book drew the attention of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, which reported that the book offered, “A sobering lesson in humanity’s vulnerability to extreme climatic events, especially the impoverished farmer and the urban poor.”[4] Perhaps this particular review offered a platform from which Steinberg’s book could be perceived as accessible to a much broader audience.

According to Google Scholar alone, Acts of God has been cited 321 times in both journals and books from a variety of disciplines. Interestingly, a large number of these references have been made only within the past five years. While a Web of Science search did not provide any useful information outside of book reviews, the results from Google Scholar alone illustrate that Steinberg’s work is still powerful and relevant in scholarly discourse on disasters.

Like other scholars, it is easy for me to see where Steinberg’s work and interpretation could become a vital part of my analysis. As my project examines the transformative potential of disasters on communities, Acts of God provides a number of more widely recognized events that I might draw connections to. Even more significantly, Steinberg’s discussion of risk and vulnerability will prove especially useful in my attempt to answer questions of vulnerability concerning the disaster I choose to analyze. Perhaps after conducting research I will find that even seemingly small, isolated disaster events have parallels or connect to the larger disaster culture and issue of misplaced blame that Steinberg discusses in his book (and I suspect this will be the case). I am particularly interested to see if the fingerprints of human action or manipulation are as evident in my own project as they are in any of the case studies that the author presents. In addition to the utility of Steinberg’s theoretical framework, I also plan to mine his bibliography for other fruitful resources. I am already aware that he refers to a number of monologues that cover specific events, and I surmise that assessing the perspectives that each of those authors use might reveal an angle that I could consider in my own work.

Ultimately, I believe that Steinberg’s work will be an absolutely essential resource for the purposes of my own project. It was, in fact, Acts of God that introduced me to scholarship on the issue of vulnerability concerning disasters in the United States. While I will have to be careful not to let the author’s unapologetic bias sway me when approaching my own case study, I am grateful to Steinberg for providing strong perspectives for me to consider when conducting my research.

[1] Flippen, J. Brooks. Review of Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America, by Ted Steinberg, The Journal of American History 89, no. 1 (June 2002), 322-323.

[2] Melosi, Martin V. Review of Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America by Ted Steinberg. Environmental History 7, no. 1 (January 2002), 137-138.

[3] Steinberg, Ted. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America 2nd ed. (Cary, NC: Oxford University Press, 2006), xiv.

[4] Steinberg, front cover.

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