“The Big One”: Origins and Expressions of an Elusive Emergency

Authors: Gregory Simon*, University of Colorado Denver
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Hazards and Vulnerability
Keywords: Earthquake, Social Vulnerability, Hazard, Urban Planning
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/11/2021
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Virtual 45
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Much of the US West Coast lives with deep and unnerving anxieties over the threat of a devastating earthquake. And not just any massive earthquake. An earthquake of near mythical proportions and untold destruction. A once-in-a-lifetime event understood and feared by everyone in the region as simply “The Big One.” This paper sets out to understand the curious history of this mythic tremor. I begin by asking the question: how do we study something that hasn’t happened yet? I argue that, in fact, “The Big One” is all around us. It shapes the planning of cities; it influences the design and construction of buildings; it impacts public infrastructure spending; it informs our imagination of the places we live and the risks contained therein, to name but a few instantiations. I aim to trace the rhetorical, scientific, political and material origins and expressions of “The Big One” as an idea and social-environmental construct. In doing so I argue that “The Big One” is an emergency that is at once everywhere and nowhere. It has real and immense impacts on policies, landscapes and psyches, yet remains an elusive, even unintelligible, hazard and anticipated socio-geologic event.

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