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 4: The Great Depression

John Singleton

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


The Great Depression of the early 1930s was the worst pure economic disaster of the twentieth century. It was a pure economic disaster because it did not happen in wartime and was not caused by events in the natural world. For Ben Bernanke (1995, 1), the quest to ‘understand the Great Depression is the Holy Grail of macroeconomics’, and more than 80 years later there is still no consensus as to its ultimate causes or the policy responses that would have been most effective in dealing with it. Understanding the Great Depression was even more difficult for those, including policy makers, who lived through it (Parker 2002; 2007). They were unsure what to expect next, and they did not know how long the downturn would persist. Their efforts at sensemaking were confused and inconsistent, and at times they lapsed into panic or denial. It does not necessarily follow, however, that they were stupid. Individuals and organizations often struggle to find solutions to complex and pressing challenges, as was the case on a smaller scale at Mann Gulch (see Chapter 1). By using the disaster cycle framework we are able to see the Great Depression from a novel perspective, one that emphasizes parallels with other types of disaster. Although the Great Depression may lose some of its uniqueness, its historical significance is not diminished.

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