What are the ‘Blessings of Disaster’?


Published November 8, 2022

Michel Bruneau.

Michel Bruneau


Disasters. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Terrorist attacks. Climate change.

All have the capacity for immense suffering. But such catastrophes also provide tremendous opportunities to enhance the resilience of a society, according to earthquake engineer and longtime UB faculty member Michel Bruneau.

Bruneau, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, is the author of a new book, “The Blessings of Disaster: The Lessons That Catastrophes Teach Us and Why Our Future Depends on It,” published today by Prometheus Books.

Written for a general audience, the book aims to show readers how, by rethinking their approach to disasters, it’s possible to make society stronger and more resilient.

Publishers Weekly called it an “engrossing study of human complacency, myopia, and faulty risk perception on a grand scale.”

In review of the book, Stephen Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University, wrote: “With humor and great wisdom, Bruneau takes us on what turns out to be a hopeful journey to confront a reality that we too often deny; disasters are neither rare nor unknowable. Along the way he empowers us to do what we must do; to think anew and act anew in face of naturally occurring and human-made hazards.”

In this Q&A with UBNow, Bruneau provides some insights that help explain this enthusiastic response to the book.

Cover of Michel Bruneau's book, "The Blessings of Disaster: The Lessons That Catastrophes Teach Us and Why Our Future Depends on It.".

In a nutshell, what is this book about?


OK, please expand a bit.

“The Blessings of Disaster” is the very real story of our relationship with disasters and how it could provide insights on our future as a civilization — with enough arguments to tickle both optimists and pessimists alike. It brings together and connects knowledge from many disciplines to paint a global picture, it provides facts to assess the significance of it all, and it does so in bright colors to keep the reader’s mind focused.

Who at UB and SUNY should read this book, and why is this important now?

As a minimum, all 370,114 students and the 50,000-plus faculty and employees affiliated with SUNY, their parents, their grandparents, their kids and grandkids — and the whole neighborhood. First and foremost because the book is entertaining and will appeal to individuals from all backgrounds and disciplines, and second because everybody should be aware of the complex factors that make it so difficult for society to prepare against disasters, and of the patterns of human nature and technology that will ensure that these disasters will (or will not) repeat themselves, because it is these same factors and patterns that will dictate how the world will face its multiple existential threats. This is particularly important for the current generation of students who are “on deck” to tackle these threats and to create a better future. 

There are other books about disasters. Why this one?

“The Blessings of Disaster” takes a unique, overarching approach from the angle of disasters and existential threats, and makes it a journey to explore multiple facets of human nature and society in a manner that is informative and entertaining for a general audience. At the same time, the book has enough thought-provoking and debate-igniting ideas for engineers, scientists and other experts from many disciplines to also have a blast reading it. Disasters are nothing but the end-product of human nature, and the book provides a thorough overview of the global and multidimensional aspects of the problem from that perspective. Besides, only “The Blessings of Disaster” successfully connects natural disasters, silent heroes, crooks, cows, hijackers, “The Three Little Pigs,” nuclear holocaust, movie reviews, viruses, scapegoats, trading stamps, real estate agents, Chinese hockey sticks, airport proctologists, and many more, into a coherent narrative.

Isn’t it outrageous to sprinkle humor throughout a book on the deadly topic of disaster?

Nobel prize winner Niels Henrik David Bohr said, “some subjects are so serious that one can only joke about them.” Besides, aren’t most pills sugarcoated?

Does history repeat itself when it comes to disasters?

The answer is an enthusiastic “it depends.” After all, disasters are 100% human creations, so some things never change, and some do.

There is no shortage of disasters. What are some of the examples you chose to write about and why?

Examples of disasters in the current context include destruction caused by earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, volcanoes, floods, technological failures, terrorist attacks, and other similar large-scale events (having a bad day at the office, no matter how “disastrous,” does not count here). Keep in mind that most hazards will not create disasters — if we are not there. This is sort of like the metaphysical question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” — but with disasters instead. It is in fact the very infrastructure that we built to protect us from the environment that collapses and kills us during earthquakes, tornadoes, and so on.

Is there common ground between COVID-19 and, say, an earthquake?

A pandemic is an “earthquake” in slow motion. It unfolds on a different time scale, which gives time for actions and reactions while it happens, but it is otherwise not so different, as explained in the book. Almost all the reasons why disasters happen remain true for pandemics.

What makes an engineer — and in particular you — qualified to tell this story?

Admitting to being an engineer can be an effective repellent in a party — except when admitting to being an earthquake engineer. Somehow, beyond the fascination with the extreme power of earthquakes, everybody wants to be reassured that our infrastructure will not collapse and that we will not suffer or die following a big one — as if for once we could be protected from the inescapable flaws of human nature. I have spent my life in one such endless party ... An earthquake engineer is tasked to design infrastructure to survive earthquakes. Such efforts often require engineers, architects, social scientists, public policy experts, political scientists and even the public — all with clashing priorities — to agree on a common objective when a consensus often does not even exist within a single one of these groups. Trying to make this happen is moving on a path that inevitably connects with the multiple facets of human nature — from the captivating ones to the crazy ones. In that world, I have more than three decades of experience, working with multidisciplinary teams advancing the goal of disaster resilience.

Given the subject matter, the book has its share of doom and gloom. Yet, it also carries a sense of optimism. How will this book change those who read it?

This book does not promise to change or improve anybody. In fact, if anything, it is the exact thesis here that human nature cannot be changed easily — barring disasters. However, it shows that things eventually come out right, and sometimes better, for the lucky ones who survive.

So, are we doomed?

The answer is in the book. Those who get the urge to jump off a cliff each time they read end-of-the-world-stories on the internet may find some comfort in it, but then again, maybe not.