Scholars have long privileged the intentional actions of humanity in explaining and writing history. And yet, are death and destruction any less significant when their cause is the movement of a tectonic plate as opposed to a bomb? Is the loss of life any less significant when it is the result of unintentional consequences? These are the sorts of high-level questions Spencer Segalla makes his readers consider as he challenges the historical profession’s penchant to neglect the impact of inanimate objects, natural disasters, or even unintentional human choices in his book, Empire and Catastrophe.

Segalla makes this larger historical argument within his field of decolonization in French North Africa. Specifically, he presents us with four significant mid-twentieth-century environmental disasters that occurred in France, Algeria, and Morocco as French colonial rule was collapsing on the other side of the Mediterranean. These are (1) the 1954 earthquake in Algeria’s Chélif Valley; (2)...

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