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Home > Reviews > Curbing Catastrophe

Curbing Catastrophe

Author Timothy H Dixon

ISBN No 9781107035188

Review date 24/06/2019

No of pages 300

Publisher Cambridge University Press

Publisher URL

Year of publication 21/04/2017


Curbing Catastrophe: Natural Hazards and Risk Reduction in the Modern World, published 2017 by Cambridge University Press

Our Review


£ 21.99

Curbing Catastrophe: Natural Hazards and Risk Reduction in the Modern World, published 2017 by Cambridge University Press.

To read an excerpt from the start of the book, visit

To quote one chapter title of Timothy H Dixon's book, 'if we know so much about natural disasters, why do we remain vulnerable?'. A question of interest to anyone to do with buildings, particularly if you live at coastal level, and face - maybe decades away, but in time - flooding, let alone if you're in a known earthquake area. That includes such world centres as San Francisco and Los Angeles, and Florida. Dixon's book does a good job in showing how 'Curbing Catastrophe' is a matter for far more than emergency responders - politicians can set building standards and build flood defences, scientists can measure and communicate risks to the public (reported by the media).

Where and how to build - in codes properly enforced - can minimise loss of life and property from earthquakes; which brings in the engineers. And the risk managers - because we need to define risk to decide what risks we're willing to take. Dixon makes the important point that investment does not have to be costly. Training floor managers to get people out of a building in the event of a fire can reduce loss of life. And yet there are recorded cases as Dixon writes of nightclub door staff refusing to let dance club customers out, after fireworks inside started a fire; or of deliberately blocked exits.

Even morals and ethics come into risk management; if you nod at the idea that schools should be more earthquake-proofed, as youths have all their lives ahead of them, does that mean retirement homes can be left to collapse? What value do we put on a life - the same in a trailer park, or an apartment block?

Many of the issues that Dixon raises - pollution, the rise in sea levels, and climate change thanks to our use of energy - are not to do with security management, but are about risks, and are political - large infrastructure projects, no matter how vital, are expensive and complex, and it's hard to hold politicians to account for not acting. Some things, as the author says, are 'laughably obvious', such as beware of fireworks; floods such as storm surges and rivers flowing over their banks are going to happen in well-defined, known locations. Hence buildings can mitigate the risks, for example through building codes, the way you build in the first place. Think of back-up power for critical infrastructure such as hospitals; and site dangerous and explosive chemicals safely.

Much of the book is given over to recent 'catastrophes' such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in September 2005 (featured on the cover); the Fukushima nuclear power plant failure during the 2011 tsunami and earthquake in northern Japan; and flooding, again after Katrina, and in Bangladesh; besides global warming, and nuclear power's 'relative risk'. Dixon, an American scientist, admits that sometimes the science isn't certain. He makes the case for transparency; Dixon argues that in a crowded and inter-connected world, where there are few experts in any specialism, there can be limited oversight, of nuclear power plant safety for example. Scientists have to get the science right; and pass on the findings; but stakeholders have to listen.

He sums up that we need to 'fit in' to our planet, with infrastructure and lives that are resilient in the face of hazards (whether from nature or man-made) and 'sensitive to our ecosystem'.



1. Black and white swans, evolution, and markets
2. What is a natural disaster? Where do they occur, and why? Are they different from human-made disasters?
3. If we know so much about natural disasters, why are we so vulnerable?
4. Japanese earthquakes and nuclear power plant failures
5. Future earthquake disasters in Seattle and Istanbul
6. Nuclear power, coal, and tuna: the concept of relative risk
7. Past and future coastal flooding: Galveston, New Orleans, Bangladesh, and the specter of sea level rise
8. What's all the fuss about global warming?
9. Solutions
References and further reading
Online appendices: Appendix 1. Additional background material and exercises for students
Appendix 2. Colour figures.