Dr. Michael Hamburger’s course COLL-C105 Natural Disasters, Sustainability, and the Future of Civilization investigates natural disasters from an interdisciplinary perspective. Professor Hamburger, a research scientist who has analyzed natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, and volcanic eruptions, explains that the course will not only discuss the occurrences of these phenomena, but their societal, political, and historical implications as well, combining a process-oriented structure with a social science and humanities perspective.
An interview with Dr. Hamburger, a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science, is below.
How do you feel that this year’s theme fits into what is going on in the world right now?
Dr. Hamburger: Resilience is an enormous theme that runs through the course of this semester-long class, with the idea that understanding these natural phenomena can lead us to solutions that can both prepare us for them and minimize their impact once they do happen. In fact, in an earlier iteration of the class, it was titled “Natural Disasters, Resilience, and the Future of Civilization” where the concept of resilience is pitted against the concept of collapse, societies that do not survive the stresses and shocks of issues like climate change and pandemics. This year we’ll actually spend some time with the COVID-19 pandemic, viewing it as a natural disaster, and climate change as well.
Why does this course fit the theme of this year’s Themester?
Dr. Hamburger: In a way, it might be viewed by some as peripheral to the focus on climate change and other environmental issues that are at the heart of this year’s Themester. In fact, the issue of resilience is really essential to this class. The occurrence of sudden shocks like earthquakes or tsunamis or volcanic eruptions is the other side of the coin to those slow developing stresses like climate change, and the concept of resilience has grown out of the preparation and response to those natural disasters, our attempt to create disaster-resilient societies.
I think it’s a perfect complement to the study of climate change; in fact, there are so many things we can learn from natural disasters that can be applied to climate change and other long-term challenges.
What type of students do you encourage to take this course? Where do you suggest people can educate themselves about this topic if they are unable to take the class?
Dr. Hamburger: For a broad-based, introductory course like this, I am not looking for students with any particular experience or expertise related to natural disasters. I want them to come in with an open mind, enthusiasm, and an interest in learning about the world around them, and excitement to learn about these events as they are happening.
One of the exciting things about this class is that it is different depending on what natural disasters are occurring each semester. The first time we taught this as a lecture class in 2017 was the year of three major hurricanes--Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and two major earthquakes in Mexico. The events that occur in real time as the class is unfolding offer us a chance for us to have “teachable moments” and explore them more deeply.
One aspect of the class is that it culminates in a final group project that features a poster session. The student research teams explore a historical natural disaster, maybe a volcanic eruption or a flood, or they may examine a future natural disaster and the preparation for it, such as an anticipated tsunami or earthquake. Some have even taken on a social science approach, surveying their peers and friends about their awareness of natural disasters and their preparedness. There’s a lot of opportunity for individual creativity in this part of the class.
If this class was condensed into a single guest lecture, what parts of the course would you highlight upon?
Dr. Hamburger: One guest lecture I did this year for another class was about connecting natural disasters, pandemics, and climate change. This comparison can help see the connections between the sudden shocks associated with a big natural disaster taking place, compared to the slow-motion disasters we’ve seen unfolding over the last few years, with the anticipated stress of climate change and environmental challenges coming over the next decades. Students can see how the lessons we’ve learned about resilience might help us overcome those challenges.
What do you hope people learn from your class and more importantly, what do you hope they teach others after being in this class?
Dr. Hamburger: I often joke with my students that I hope that they think of me whenever they witness a natural disaster occurring somewhere in the world, and I have actually heard back from students saying that they did, in fact, think of me when they saw a disaster on the news.
In all seriousness, however, I hope that they understand that these major natural disasters are not simply random, unexpected, unpredictable phenomena that go beyond human understanding, and that we have an amazing array of tools to understand these very powerful and sometimes very frightening phenomena, and we can use these tools to help mitigate the impacts of future disasters upon our society.
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