Four Talks on Disaster Risk Reduction, no. 1
There is Nothing More Practical than a Theoretical Approach to Disasters
I am perhaps unusual in that I can fix the beginning of my interest in disasters to the nearest tenth of a second. It was the evening of Sunday, 23rd November 1980 at 19.34 hours and 52.8 seconds, local time, when it all started. Instrumental seismology is the source of that perhaps rather spurious accuracy. I was a passenger in an express train that was slowing down to stop at Pompei (that's modern Pompei, not the archaeological site) on route to Taranto, southern Italy, where it never arrived. The following edited extract from my diary describes what followed:-
"As we drew near to Pompei the train began to sway and shudder sideways. It slowed, but continued swaying and trembling, seeming to hang poised above the rails. A few seconds later it came crashing down again and again in a series of bone-jarring oscillations. Without speaking, we clung to the luggage racks. From the darkness outside came the sound of tens of thousands of voices screaming, shouting and crying. Meanwhile, the train drifted to a stop at Pompei station, which was in total darkness.
"Outside, there was a furious commotion. Car headlights swept the sky, horns blared, tyres squealed; there were more shouts and screams. Groups of people came running across the railway tracks, seeking refuge away from the shadow of tall buildings. We sat in the carriage, bewildered and alarmed. After twenty minutes, when the noise had begun to die away, I clambered down from the train. On the platform of Pompei station, a dense crowd of people stood in the moonlight around the signal cabin, where the station-master was vainly trying to establish contact with the rest of the railway system. He tried number after number on the telephone and pulled lever after lever on the signal frame, but the equipment was dead or unresponsive. The crowd murmured apprehensively. Suddenly, the station lights came on; but after a few seconds they flickered and went out again. As the light ebbed, the crowd gave in to panic. People rushed to the nearest open spaces, or threw themselves to the ground. A man slipped and rolled under the train. I began to start running, but checked myself, realizing that there was nowhere to run to, and running was pointless.
"After an hour and a half I made my way down the street into the centre of Pompei. The darkness was almost complete and, until my eyes became accustomed to it, I had to feel my way along the walls of the buildings that lined the street. The roadway was deserted and as soon as I could see well enough in the dark I moved away from the walls, as I was acutely fearful that masonry would fall on me. In the main square, residents had lit bonfires and were sitting patiently around them wrapped in blankets. Flames cast a bright orange light on the dense, watery clouds of fog that blew overhead. The mist parted momentarily to reveal a black bronze angel, trumpet in hand and wings outspread, perched on the white marble campanile of the Sanctuary of the Madonna."
I have quoted in extenso in order to give some flavour of what it is like to be in a disaster, unharmed, but scared stiff, and then accompanied everywhere by a lump in the throat, a tightness of the chest, a heaviness of heart, gut-wrenching tension and a profound sense of anguish.
As in any large earthquake, death, injury, destruction and damage proliferated. Daily life went out the window: in fact, I spent the next three nights sleeping on a park bench, and, when I could bring myself to sleep inside, I did so fully clothed with my shoes on and a torch in my hand, ready to react to the slightest tremor.
But the account I have just given is one of chaos and anarchy. In reality, disasters do not contain quite so much of those qualities. Hence, for me the real epiphany was not seeing the orange glow of the flames reflected on the black bronze angels, it was the moment, days later, when I started to read the literature on disasters and I realised that there is order amid the anarchy.
Most, perhaps all, phenomena consist of a combination of uniqueness and common elements. So it is with disasters. Each one is new and to a certain extent different from those that preceded it. But there is much common ground between one extreme, damaging event and another. It is this that enables us to develop theory.
You will have heard people—especially people with a strongly practical turn of mind—dismiss something by saying "oh, that's purely theoretical", as if theory were a dispensable adjunct to what we see and do. It is not so. Theory is the means by which we make sense of complicated phenomena. It helps us make a model of complex reality; and models, if they are good, are elegant simplifications that help us to understand complexities and come to terms with them.
In the early 1990s convocations of people who work in humanitarian relief organisations started talking about the 'complex disaster'. This is a crisis situation that occurs—and persists—in a place where the normal organisation of society has broken down. The pre-eminent examples came from the Middle East and Horn of Africa: Somalia, for instance, where government, security, education and many forms of commerce had to be reorganised informally if, and where, there was any chance of them taking place.
Critics of the 'complex disaster' have argued that all disasters are by their very nature complex, whether they occur in Somalia or California. If disasters were simple problems, or so goes the argument, there would be simple remedies and the whole matter would be under control.
But disasters are not under control. The last sixty years have seen the number of catastrophes and calamities increase fivefold and their costs increase more that fifteen times. In part, this is an artefact of better counting in 2012 than in 1950, more access to news about distant places, and the inclusion of more indirect costs in the statistics. (For example, in 1950 banks had no cash machines, but if your ATM is now put out of action by a disaster the fact that you cannot obtain money from it may well be factored into the costs.)
There is currently surprisingly little information to show that global warming has increased the power of natural disasters, but the signs are that this is merely a lag effect. In other words, before long it will be abundantly clear that meteorological disasters are becoming more powerful, more frequent and are lasting longer as a result of global climate change (and that goes for extremes at both ends of the spectrum, for example, floods and droughts). In the meantime the same effect, an increase in the sum total of human suffering, is produced by relentless rises in the population and the vulnerability of people who inhabit the places most at risk of natural hazards. Moreover, competition for resources, marginalisation, exploitation and a widening income gap between rich and poor may fuel conflict and thus produce more of another kind of disaster. Finally, technological development and the relentless rise of fixed, physical capital in hazardous areas adds to the portfolio of disaster risk. Technology is ever the double-edged sword, capable of making life safer and spreading great benefits but at the same time able to create new and enhanced forms of risk.
So disasters are not under control. What are we going to do about this? The first task is to study the problem in order to develop a better understanding of it: know disaster and by "knowing your enemy" learn to conquer him. And so back to the question of theory.
In many fields it is perfectly legitimate to develop theory for its own sake. There is nothing inherently wrong with a theoretical approach and the ability to see things in the abstract is a useful attribute, providing we don't all do it all the time. However, there is something rather special about theory in the study of disasters. In the words of an eminent sociologist of disasters, Professor Thomas E. Drabek, "theory is our road-map". When a situation is apparently chaotic, theory will help unravel the strands and make it comprehensible. In so doing, it will help us to satisfy basic needs for mitigation, response and readiness.
In few fields is the link between theory and practice so strongly forged. When a theorist produces a new hypothesis about hazard, risk or disaster, to be validated, it has to survive a more or less immediate test. For we need theory that is directly useful. It is all very well to do "blue sky thinking" and produce elaborate, abstract concepts, or descend into the contemorary Baroque of post-modern reasoning, but this is a field in which there are exceedingly strong imperatives. We need theory that can be applied in the round to help save lives, limit damage, anticipate adverse events, and so on. The test of theory is its ability to survive a "trial by fire" in the disaster area.
I hope that these reflections make it clear how important theory is. Far from being the "peacock's tail" of disasters, it is the means by which a link can—and must—be forged between academics who study disasters, emergency planners, front-line responders and a host of other practitioners. The accumulation of a body of theory legitimises a discipline and helps it to become mature. Disaster studies are an emerging discipline (and later we will deal with the question of how to identify and characterise it). Theory is the visiting card of this field and the means by which it will establish itself, grow to maturity and make a strong contribution to human welfare.
Therein lies a problem. The very earliest academic theorists of disasters (leaving aside the odd general who philosophised on the battlefield, and other ad hoc contributions) produced their initial contributions shortly after the First World War, and in some cases directly in response to that conflict.
Samuel Henry Prince was a man of the cloth (whose likeness is now immortalised in a stained glass window in a church in his home town). In Halifax, Nova Scotia, he ministered to parishioners after a munitions ship had exploded in the local harbour and devastated a large area of town, with heavy loss of life. His genius lay in his recognition of the existence of social regularities amid the chaos and destruction. He codified them in a doctoral thesis that became a book published in 1920 by his alma mater, Columbia University, and now freely available to be downloaded from the Internet. He was closely followed by a Chicago University geographer, a larger-than-life man physically and in human terms—and a giant of an intellectual—called Harlan Barrows, whose presidential address to the Association of American Geographers in 1923 kicked off the study, by geographers and anthropologists of 'human ecology' and the study of humanity's adaptation to environmental extremes.
Progress was relatively slow. In the inter-War years, a Russian, a monacled former aristocrat called Pitrim Sorokin, was co-opted by the Bolsheviks to help them understand how the masses reacted to social turmoil, as well as how soldiers reacted to stress on the battlefield, a question that was already preoccupying clinical psychologists in the West. Sorokin ended his days at Harvard University with a comfortable, if not outstanding reputation. Meanwhile, Professor Barrows's legacy at Chicago was about to blossom.
In the 1930s the United States had grappled unsuccessfully with the difficult problem of how to bring natural disasters under control, particularly floods. The massive rivers of the American heartland, the Missouri and Mississippi, were prone to overflow and devastate floodplain communities and agriculture, not once in a lifetime, but repeatedly year after year. It seemed that the more containment structures that were built, the worse the flooding became. The answer to the conundrum was provided by a gentle Quaker, Gilbert Fowler White, who, for his efforts on behalf of disaster reduction in the United States, later received the Presidential Medal for Science from Bill Clinton.
White founded a school of human ecology in which the solutions proposed were both structural and non-structural. Land use control, emergency planning, insurance underwritten by the government and other such measures were to be added to the engineering solutions that had hitherto prevailed. White and his students also showed that how people perceive hazards has a great impact upon how they deal with them. In fact, systematic studies of perception took off under White's aegis, and, such was academic life in cosmopolitan Chicago, the concepts were exported to the four corners of the world, where, by and large, they took root.
Meanwhile, conflict was once again stimulating academic work. In the countries that were exhausted by warfare, particularly Germany, France, Britain and Japan, the end of the Second World War and its early aftermath, were one long draw-out disaster for the survivors. Knowing that they would have to "fight the peace" as much as the war, even before the end of hostilities, the victors had sent in social scientists to listen and record (an act that contrasts starkly with the laissez faire attitude to the aftermath of hostilities in Iraq in the 1990s and 2000s).
Mass Observation survived the end of the 1940s. It did so because of the fears engendered by the Cold War. In the United States, the National Opinion Research Center was founded, again at Chicago, in 1941 and there it still remains. In the 1950s NORC made detailed studies of natural disasters—hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes—in an attempt to see whether the intense disruption that they caused could be considered an analogue for the effects of a nuclear war. In the end, the answer was a resounding 'no', especially as the megatonnage and stockpiles of nuclear weapons increased. But the studies remained valid in their own right, and in terms of social research on disasters, they started the ball rolling. (Let us note in passing that the same agenda was pursued at the time by the US National Academy of Sciences, which, among other initiatives, sent its psychologists to examine the effects of tornadoes on victims and survivors).
As time progressed, the geographers migrated to the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the sociologists first to Columbus, Ohio, and then to the University of Delaware. Gradually the evidence mounted. People react to disasters according to how they perceive these phenomena, how they deal with risk, and how they perceive the opportunities that are available to them. Faced with hazard, they adapt their activities and lifestyles—always assuming that they perceive enough of the risks to adapt to them. Of course, there were plenty of anecdotes about maladaptation. For example, one researcher interviewed a property developer on the banks of a river in Pennsylvania. She asked him if he realised that the apartments he had just built were easily floodable. His response was a classic: "There is no flood risk here, because within six months I will have sold every one of these apartments!"
One thing bothers me about these studies, and that relates to the model individual that they are based on. The Nobel Prize-winning economist and polymath Herbert Simon wrote several papers in the 1950s in which he developed the concept of the rational man, homo economicus. This notional person was either an optimiser or a satisficer. In either case he did the best he could under the circumstances, but in the former instance he actively sought the best available information about hazards and risks, while in the latter case he was content with a less-than-complete set of information. The Chicago researcher's perceiver of floods and droughts, adopter of mitigation measures and adapter to environmental extremes, the human ecologist in the round, was a member of the homo economicus tribe.
Well, to begin with, there was no mention of his female counterpart. Would a 'rational woman' have been more or less rational than the man, and how would her brand of rationality have differed from his? Furthermore, the word culture did not appear in the dialogue. The form of rationality under consideration was economic; it was based on considerations of income and expenditure.
Anthropologists will decry what I have to say next: indeed, they have already severely lambasted me. However, the study of culture is conspicuous by its absence in a large proportion of disaster research. I accept that it has been central to the work of anthropologists, and these include some of the most eminent human ecologists (indeed, the synonym for this term preferred by many anthropologists is 'cultural ecology'). Karl Butzer, yet again of Chicago, was one such expert who looked at disasters. In a more sustained and intense way, so has the very eminent anthropologist Professor Anthony Oliver-Smith, working in the Andes. However, the sad fact is that anthropologists and other cultural ecologists have had relatively little impact on students of disaster from other disciplines, and there may be as many as 35 of these.
Culture is something I shall return to later in these talks, because it is as important as it is neglected. (Fortunately there are incipient signs that in the present decade something is at last going to be done to remedy this situation.) People do things for cultural reasons, whether they act with or without self-awareness. Perception and interpretation of disaster has cultural roots, even among those researchers who strive to be totally objective. One can even add that money is spent on the basis of cultural justifications that have little support in the mind of homo economicus. That, of course, is because homo sapiens sapiens, for better or worse, is endowed with memory and free will.
But let these considerations not be interpreted as a call for anarchy and liberation from theory. I am merely arguing that it is time to stop assuming that we are all, deep down, alike in how we view and react to disasters. I do, however, recognise that many of the social regularities brought to light in acultural studies have proved remarkably resilient, even when transplanted to radically different forms of society.
Besides the absence of culture, there has been another problem with disaster theory, which is fragmentation of effort. I have alluded to the difference between geographers, anthropologists and sociologists, but there are, in reality, somewhere between six and eleven different schools of thought. The fault lines between them may be micro or macro. Psychologists, for example, look at how people internalise the effects of disaster, while sociologists look at how they share them socially. The biggest dividing line is between the physical and construction sciences on the one hand and the social sciences on the other. To this day, the latter remain the poor relations.
Essentially, it took the period 1990-2005 to get the study of natural hazards fully established. This meant encouraging co-operation among physical scientists (geologists, seismologists, volcanologists, engineers, and so on) for the study of extreme natural events. The 'products', or outcomes, of this are maps of hazard and susceptibility; studies of energy expenditure leading to damage; surveillance, prediction and physical warning systems, and so forth.
To take an example, an effective hazard warning system must consist of three functioning subsystems: physical (i.e. scientific), administrative and social. The absence or inefficiency of any of these components will render the whole system ineffective. No greater rationale could be advanced for healing the breaches, bridging the gaps, or returning to a state of interdisciplinary activity—and including the social scientists.
I say 'returning': in the mid-eighteenth century, Domenico Antonio Guglielmini was Professor at the University of Bologna, the world's alma mater studiorum, but of what? He professed geology, anatomy, medicine and mathematics, and he was adept at discovering the connections between these sciences. In the modern age, the proliferation of knowledge has made it impossible, or at least very difficult, to be a professor of several radically different fields at once. But students of scientific progress often forget that the modern idea of disciplines is exactly that: it is of recent institution, perhaps dating from the 'Scottish Renaissance' of the 1790s. A couple of centuries later, is it not time to think again about where the boundaries ought to be?
I have long taken the view that the demands of the problem, not the nature of the discipline, should determine the way in which disaster is studied. No phenomenon is more transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary—or do I mean non-disciplinary?—than disaster.
Herein lies another problem, one that began to be serious in 1970 and has grown and grown ever since. Yes, the early body of theory about disaster did strive to be interdisciplinary, or at least multi-dimensional. In so doing, it tended to fragment. The result is that there are many more opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration than actual examples of it, and there are many studies that consider only one aspect of each multi-dimensional problem. Putting them together is a challenge. Concurrent to this, the obsolescence of theory about disasters is a developing problem.
The full fruit of Barrows's and White's work on disasters began to be felt in the 1970s. By this time the "hazardousness of place" was a well-established notion, and so were risk perception and adaptation. Proof that these ideas were well-established can be discerned in the way that they began seriously to be questioned. By the mid-1970s (when, incidentally, the United States made its first systematic effort to assess the nature and magnitude of the hazards that the nation faces) the model was in place, but it was beginning to look too linear: hazards acting upon the vulnerability of people and their communities and economies, and with disaster impact as the end result.
Research in East Africa began to paint a different picture. Here, vulnerability called the tune. Hazards could be looked upon as merely the 'trigger' to events whose form and severity were conditioned by the susceptibility of people and their communities to harm. In point of fact, commentators had been saying for years that there is nothing very natural about 'natural' disasters—a mere convenience term for events whose origin is human made. Thus, for instance, earthquakes directly kill very few people, but collapsing buildings can cause vast numbers of casualties. It follows that buildings which resist seismic shaking can drastically limit the tolls of death and injury in major earthquake events.
The so-called 'radical critique' was advanced in a book edited by the eminent Anglo-Canadian geographer Kenneth Hewitt, in 1983. His thesis was that vulnerability is the heart of causality when disaster strikes. Feedback dominates the linear relationship between hazard, susceptibility and harm. Hewitt and his colleagues argued that much more time should be spent on looking at the sources and causes of vulnerability than had hitherto been the case in a field dominated by the exponents of studies of hazards.
It took a quarter of a century before that idea was accepted at an institutional level. The European Commission finally backed it with funding over the period 2007-2011. The EC then fell into the political elephant trap that disaster so readily creates: it is a negative phenomenon with a negative image. Hence, the next tranche of funding went to back studies of resilience, practically the opposite of vulnerability. In my view, this was premature, as there is still plenty of mileage in vulnerability studies. For instance, one paper published in the early 2000s listed 22 different definitions of vulnerability: this is now reckoned to be about half of the number of definitions of the term that are in general circulation. It stands to reason that if we have trouble defining a term we still have trouble conceptualising the phenomenon it represents.
So where are we now, and what is the problem? The points I have made add up to the fact that academic and institutional views of disaster seem to change slower than the phenomenon itself. We are left with theory that is still based upon Simon's "rational man", that still lacks cultural resonance, that still places too much emphasis on hazards as the trigger rather than vulnerability as the essence.
The central fact is that the world has changed enormously over the last 40 years and, with respect to disasters, theory production has not kept pace. For example, since 1970, the income gap between the world's rich and poor has steadily widened. The demographic question has become more of an imperative; peak oil has already occurred, but demand continues to rise; resources are scarce, sustainability is elusive, and so on.
So let us end with a call for a renewed quest for theory that can successfully be applied to severely practical problems associated with risks and disasters. The incentive—and the fact that set me on a 32-year course of studying disasters—is that disasters are extraordinarily revealing phenomena. They open a window on the inner workings of society. They shine a light on the murky corners of the human condition. They etch the patterns of chiaroscuro in never-ending dichotomy between the benevolent and malevolent sides of the human character.
When I first started to study disaster many of the debates that are now so familiar and so quotidian were non-existent. Sustainability is one of these. When I call for improved theory, I believe that our strategy on disaster risk reduction (DRR—another relatively new term) must necessarily be integrated with our approach to sustainable living. In fact, DRR needs both to be sustainable in its own right and part of the general push to make our living conditions sustainable in terms of resource usage, apportionment and stewardship. Climate change and the technological revolution inherent in globalisation are great stimuli to these efforts.
In 1976 the journal Disasters began publication. I have been associated with it since it was five years old and it continues to flourish under the aegis of the Overseas Development Institute in London. The very first article in Volume 1, no. 1, was an editorial by the eminent expert on humanitarian relief, John Seaman. Dr Seaman, Chief Medical Officer with Save the Children Fund, has a talent for provocative writing. He began the journal by fervently hoping that it would cease publication. However, his criterion was that there be no more disasters. Unfortunately, we are a long way from achieving that end and Disasters is at Volume 36 and going strong.
The nature of the debate and the science it publishes has changed and continues to do so. My thesis is that it needs to change yet more radically. I invite you to join me in thinking about how that might occur, keeping in mind our ultimate goal, that ever-so-theoretical world that has, miraculously, been freed from the scourge of disaster.