Fall 2020

Slow Disaster in the Anthropocene: A Historian Witnesses Climate Change on the Korean Peninsula

Scott Gabriel Knowles

Despite their seeming reluctance to engage in the politics of the now, historians have a crucial role to play as witnesses to climate change and its attendant social injustices. Climate change is a product of industrialization, but its effects are known in different geographical and temporal scales through the compilation and analysis of historical narratives. This essay explores modes of thinking about disasters and temporality, the Anthropocene, and the social production of risk–set against a case study of the Korean DMZ as a site for historical witnessing. Historical methods are crucial if we are to investigate deeply the social processes that have produced climate change. A “slow disaster in the Anthropocene” approach might show the way forward.

Scott Gabriel Knowles is Professor and Head of the Department of History at Drexel University. He is the author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America (2011) and is coeditor, with Kim Fortun, of the University of Pennsylvania Press book series Critical Studies in Risk and Disaster.

We will make sure that every leader who hesitates and waffles on climate will be seen as another Donald Trump, and we will make sure that history will judge that name with the contempt it deserves.

—Bill McKibben, 2017

When it comes to sorting out the good and the bad, “history” is an activist. Placing a bad actor on the “wrong side of history” is a rhetorical strategy deployed by everyone from presidents to popes. In moments of political turmoil, the impending judgment of “history” wields moral power. But what about the historians?

I trained as a historian of technology in the late 1990s. In those days, there was a fascination with the history of technological systems that built America: electrification, dams, highways, the Internet. I was more interested in why systems fail, and I wrote a dissertation about the conflagrations that destroyed American cities from Chicago to Baltimore to Boston in that heralded era of American ingenuity. I was on my way to Chicago to spend a week immersed in the archives of the Iroquois Theater Fire–the greatest fire tragedy of the twentieth century in the United States–and by the time my plane landed, the Twin Towers had been attacked in New York City.

In the months that followed, I listened to the braying of politicians decrying the attacks with an incessant focus on an external enemy, and I dove deeper and deeper into the equally unsettling history of the World Trade Center. The Towers were experimental buildings with known weaknesses to fire. There was no conspiracy here, just a long history of incomplete fire protection that was never fully realized until it was too late. The structural weaknesses had a history connected to the larger story of materials testing, building codes, the insurance industry, and urban politics. Unraveling that tangled knot became a central focus of my 2011 book The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America. What started as the history of a fire problem buried in the American past turned into a chronicle of continuity in risk and disaster. Disasters aren’t events that float freely in history, unmoored from politics: they are processes, playing out in uneven temporalities, and always with deep histories.

A historian worrying about a missile attack while baking in a heat wave: that’s me in the Gyeongui Line Forest Park in Seoul on a broiling summer day in 2017. I was for that summer a visiting researcher in the KAIST Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy, working with Dr. Chihyung Jeon to understand the causes and implications of the 2014 sinking of the Sewol Ferry. In many ways, it was a continuation of my previous work on the Twin Towers: searching for the obscured history of technological decision-making behind a major national disaster.

Construction on the Gyeongui Line, Korea’s first major railway, began in 1902. In Seoul today, the rail line is submerged beneath the congested city, and the Forest Park is an urban oasis with water and trees and plenty of space for my two children to run and ride their scooters and make too much noise. Suddenly, my iPhone let out a terrible sound and the screen was full of text. I could hear other people’s phones in the park making the same noise. Since I unfortunately don’t read Korean, I quickly snapped a picture and texted it to my friend. What’s happening? I asked, a bit urgently.

The summer of 2017 was an anxious one. My South Korean friends have grown up with post–Korean War polarization and the ever-present threat of violence, but I suspected that even to them this period of time was an unusual one. More certain of the diplomatic tactics of the North, they were highly unsure of the United States’ recently elected and unpredictable reality-show president. On arrival in South Korea, I felt alarmed to read a recommendation that I should have gas masks for my family, and that we needed to know where to take shelter if a missile barrage were to start–and also that I shouldn’t worry too much about such things.

But I’m a disaster researcher, worry is my business. Only recently, President Trump had warned North Korean President Kim Jong-un that if he continued testing missiles, the United States would rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” down on Pyongyang. North Korea’s response was a shrug, and then a threat to create an “enveloping fire” around Guam. Meanwhile, that week, the American press was busily churning out grim “scenario stories”: What might happen if war returned to the Korean Peninsula? How many would die in the first hour, the first day, the first month? Some of these scenarios ended with full-blown nuclear war, while the rosier scenarios imagined only tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers being killed, primarily in Seoul and Pyongyang.

. . . 

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