Catastrophes as Turning Points

What can we learn from catastrophes? How can the causes of failure be identified? What is the appropriate response to systemic failure? How can catastrophes be avoided in the future?

There has been no shortage of failure in recent history – from the nuclear catastrophes at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima to the collapse of Melbourne’s West Gate bridge and the worldwide impact of the drug Thalidomide.

DinosaursWhat can we learn from such catastrophes? How can the causes of failure be identified? What is the appropriate response to systemic failure? How can such catastrophes be avoided in the future? Following an introduction to a number of theoretical approaches to human-made catastrophe, questions such as these are examined though a study of the causes and value of a number of iconic catastrophes.

Detailed accounts of these theories and case studies will be delivered through a series of lectures that draw on the expertise of scholars from a range of disciplines, including Environmental Science, Architecture, Engineering, Computing and Information Systems, Science and Technology Studies, and the History of Medicine.

These are complemented by relevant readings and extended with weekly tutorials that provide a space to develop an understanding of theoretical approaches to failure as well as to discuss the causes and value of each case study in more depth.

Assessment for this subject includes conducting a small-scale case study of your choice, and provides the opportunity to develop research and analytic skills, including the ability to:

  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of theoretical approaches that purport to explain the causes of human-made catastrophes.
  • Appreciate the range of factors and causes implicated in a catastrophe as well as the context in which these occur.
  • Understand the theoretical grounds upon which causal claims are made and contested and critically evaluate contrasting claims about the causes of failure across a range of contexts.
  • Critically assess professional, political, institutional, and public responses to catastrophes.
  • Articulate the value of failure for understanding technical, scientific, and economic systems, and convincingly interpret and respond to situations where things go badly wrong.

Join Catastrophes as Turing Points to learn about fascinating and iconic catastrophes, conduct a small case study of interest to you, and engage in lively and informed discussions about the causes and value of catastrophes. Visit the University Handbook for more information.