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Environment and History

From Wood to Stone: The Risk Management of Swiss Re in The Sundsvall Fire 1888

Eleonora Rohland

Environment and History 17 (2011): 153-169. doi: 10.3197/096734011X12922359173096

Through the lens of the Swiss Reinsurance Company's (today Swiss Re) nineteenth century correspondence, the Swedish and international (re-)insurance industry's risk management after the devastating fire of Sundsvall, Sweden on June 25, 1888 unfolds. The article focuses on the Swiss Reinsurance Company's post disaster 'risk-shaping' and the formation of reinsurance lobby-groups in the aftermath of the disaster. It argues that even the insurance industry's concept of 'objective risk' is not static but fluid and open to negotiation within the insurance system. Since the insurance industry works on the interface between the natural and the built environment it can influence directly how societies interact with nature. The article argues furthermore, that perceiving fire merely as a man-made hazard without considering its 'natural' context falls short of an accurate analysis, in particular concerning 'catastrophic loss' (i.e. large-scale loss) affecting (re-)insurers' geographical risk distribution.

KEYWORDS: Risk, reinsurance, fire, disasters, risk management, Sweden, Swiss Re, environment, lobby-groups


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