Economic and Natural Disasters since 1900

Economic and Natural Disasters since 1900

A Comparative History

John Singleton

In the wake of the global financial and Eurozone upheavals this timely book argues that the disaster cycle – a framework normally used in the context of natural disasters – is equally applicable to the analysis of other types of catastrophe. Employing a modified version of the disaster cycle framework to compare and analyse a range of catastrophes in different spheres, the author draws on ideas from a variety of disciplines including economics and economic history, disaster studies, management, and political science. This unique comparative approach presents case studies of several important disasters: Hurricane Katrina, the First World War, the depression of the early 1930s, Welsh coal mining accidents, the deadly effects of smoking tobacco, and the Global Financial Crisis and Eurozone catastrophe of the early twenty first century. The author argues that economists and economic policy makers routinely misuse the term crisis to describe episodes that ought to be called disasters.

Chapter 3: The First World War

John Singleton

Subjects: economics and finance, economic psychology, financial economics and regulation, history of economic thought, regional economics, environment, disasters


The First World War was in many respects the key disaster of the twentieth century. As well as being immensely destructive at the time, the conflict between 1914 and 1918 generated economic and political instabilities that helped to pave the way for the depression of the 1930s and the Second World War. The years 1914 to 1918 brought an unprecedented level of destruction to Europe. R.H. Mottram, a British army officer on the Western Front, wrote that the world had become ‘two gigantic factories, equipped with an inconceivable plant of all sorts’; soldiers were ‘the material on which the vast organisation worked, and the finished article made out of them was Death’ (Mottram 1929, 129). The war was simply overwhelming. In Dynamic of Destruction, Alan Kramer (2008, 240) states that many poor Italians ‘regarded the war as a natural catastrophe like an epidemic or an earthquake’. It must have seemed that way to millions of people across Europe. Yet, as David Stevenson points out, the war was not a natural catastrophe but a political one. The First World War of 1914–18 was an economic disaster of the highest order. Millions of combatants and civilians died, either as the direct result of military operations or indirectly from the disease and starvation that accompanied war. An influenza pandemic in 1918–19 killed even more people than the war itself. Between 1914 and 1918 output fell in most belligerent countries. Men and horses were reallocated from peaceful labour into the armed services.

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