Forecasting Catastrophe

Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor Adriana Petryna and Assistant Professor Etienne Benson discuss environmental disaster predictors.
August 2013

In a recent issue of Limn, an online magazine featuring scholarly commentary on contemporary problems, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor Adriana Petryna of Anthropology and Assistant Professor of History and Sociology of Science Etienne Benson offer their takes on the issue’s theme of sentinel devices, indicators that can aid in “preparation for an uncertain but potentially catastrophic future.”

Petryna, whose research spans anthropological theory, the social studies of science and technology, globalization and health, and medical anthropology, uses Chernobyl’s “Zone”—the area surrounding the disaster site—to examine what she refers to as the “origins of extinction.” An expert in nuclear disasters and author of Life Exposed: Biological Citizens After Chernobyl, she says patterns such as drops in species diversity represent alarming trends but also offer important insight.

Benson, whose research focuses on relationships between humans and animals that are mediated or transformed by developments in science and technology, examines various environmental prediction models and their effectiveness. He focuses on polar bear population threats, often used to advertise negative effects of climate change, to highlight the technological limitations of prognostication systems. While invaluable in making conservation decisions, he says, these models do not hold up well under close scrutiny.

Click the images below to read the articles in their entirety.