Chapter 1 introduces the broad objective of the book. This is to show how history can be used to understand why biophysical shocks and hazards, sometimes leading to disasters, push societies in different directions – creating a diversity of possible social and economic outcomes. In order to understand this diversity, we need to look not only at institutional responses but also at the social actors behind these responses, who may have very different goals, not always equivalent to the ‘common good’. We illustrate how shocks and hazards, and the disasters that sometimes ensued, could thus have very diverse consequences not only between societies, but also within the same societies, between social groups, and across wealth, ethnic, and gender lines. In discussing these issues, the book goes back in time further than the modern period. Although the Industrial Revolution and associated new technologies brought momentous changes, these did not create a fundamental rift between the period before and after the Industrial Revolution, and we argue that the underlying mechanisms remained similar. After the outline of the intentions of this book, the chapter concludes with a survey of the fields of disaster studies, disaster history, and the relevant interpretative frameworks in historical research.