Friday, 17 May 2013

Talk no. 4: Disasters, Resilience and the Tension of Opposites

Four Talks on Disaster Risk Reduction, no. 4
Disasters, Resilience and the Tension of Opposites

The word resilience, or resiliency, has a 500-year history in the English language. It stems from the Latin verb resilire, 'to recoil' or rebound. The first scientific use of the term occurred in the Edwardian era slightly more than a century ago, when it was applied in mechanics. A resilient material is one that, under an applied force, reacts with an optimum combination of strength and ductility. The strength enables it to resist the force and the ductility to deform in order to absorb some of the stress that is applied.

In the 1960s resiliency was first used to describe ecological systems that could resist shocks to their equilibrium. The term was applied in the sense of formal systems analysis. Twenty-five years later the concept came into common use in psychology, with particular reference to the ability of children to survive the trauma of conflict, disaster or family strife.

Resiliency became fashionable in disaster risk reduction only in the mid-2000s. By analogy with mechanics, a resilient society is one that is strong enough to resist the shock effect of disaster and flexible enough to adapt to those aspects that cannot be repulsed. The idea draws upon both the long tradition of building structural protection against natural disasters (dams, levees, anti-seismic housing, and so on) and 90 years of human ecological studies on how people and societies adapt to hazards.

One common misassumption about resiliency is that it simply means 'to bounce back', in the sense of recreating the conditions that prevailed before disaster struck. A much better idea is to "build back better", in which disaster becomes the opportunity to improve conditions beyond what they were before. In many parts of the world this is an imperative, and one hopes that disaster is not a brake on development, but the opportunity to further it by introducing more functional plans, better initiatives for renewal and an augmented culture of safety. One also hopes that this is is the case, not only in terms of physical protection, but also with respect to social and institutional development.

Gradually, the erosion of boundaries between disciplines and professions has led to a consensus that the answers to the problems posed by disasters need to be holistic. The sectoral approach has often created more problems than it has solved, for example, by encouraging development behind structural barriers that fail to offer adequate protection against floods, landslides, avalanches or tsunamis—in fact no structural measures ever offer 100 per cent protection. Indeed, without a holistic approach that develops measures in a variety of structural and non-structural domains, there may be a risk transfer effect, but not of the mutually beneficial kind. More likely it will transfer risk from where it is tractable to where it is intractable or cannot so easily be sustained.

Indeed, one of the most common forms of risk transfer involves the marginalisation of the poor and dispossessed. All evidence points to the fact that disasters tend to strengthen pre-existing power structures. Once the 'therapeutic community' of welfare and mutual assistance has evaporated, the social milieu that emerges tends to be a version of what was there before that exaggerates its own defects. For instance, after the December 1972 earthquake in Nicaragua, the rich and middle classes rebuilt their damaged property in six months: some of the poor and marginalised people of the city never rebuilt their homes at all. Hence, disasters are seldom about empowerment, even though they ought to be. They weaken the weak and strengthen the hand of the strong. In the Caribbean, for example, Hurricane Mitch set back development in some areas by twenty years, and it left plantation workers destitute as their employers switched production elsewhere and offered them no safety net. What was mere inconvenience to a multinational company was devastating to its employees.

It should be apparent from this discussion, and from much of what one reads about disaster, that it is a thing of light and shade. Indeed, the tension of opposites, the chiaroscuro of disaster, dominates the whole field. This is hardly a new predicament. In fact, perhaps without being aware of it, we still use the ancient Platonic notions of generatio and corruptio, creation and destruction. The Greeks had intended them primarily as expressions of small-scale cycles, by which, for example, mountains were elevated and their rocks gradually shattered and scoured away by erosion. Indeed, they saw the world as continuously locked in the dialectic of creation and destruction. The Mediæval thinker, on the other hand, was apt to impose a beginning and an end to the great cycles, and hence generatio gradually became equated with Genesis, and corruptio with the Day of Judgement and the ensuing extinction of the world in a final conflagration. Greeks who had been sceptical of Plato had interpreted his magnus annus (or Great Year) in this way, as one phase of growth and decay encompassing all life and human existence.

Despite our different perspective in the 21st century, that tension of opposites, generatio and corruptio, remains a part of our outlook.

In fact, sometimes the ancient Greek thinkers seem quintessentially modern. Consider, for example, Anaximander of Miletus, whose dates were  615 to 547 BCE. By a process of dispassionate observation of the world around him he raised the great questions: what is nature? What is the source of the confusion and change that we see around us, and how are we to reconcile it with the concept of eternal and absolute order? Almost 2,600 years later, if we knew the answers to these questions sufficiently well, we would probably know enough to bring the disasters problem fully under control.

Instead, we live in the New Baroque Era. True, history does not repeat itself, but it does make some close passes with respect to how it once was. The old Baroque period was distinguished by the tension of opposites. In Europe, the Ancien Régime began to crumble under the duress of technological and social change. Old certainties began to disappear. The 21st century has its absolutism, its barbarism and its perplexities, too. In both periods we can discern a struggle to come to terms with the rapidly shifting foundations of society.

I was much struck by the parallels between the Lisbon earthquake of November 1755 and the attacks on the United States in September 2001. In both cases, the heart of a great trading empire was suddenly, unexpectedly struck a cataclysmic, death-dealing blow on a calm, sunny morning. Even the visual parallels are striking: lofty buildings, with their repetitive fenestration, suddenly brought down, towers decapitated, dust plumes and crackling fires that consumed the wreckage. I have written in detail about the philosophical, social and symbolic similarities between the two disasters (see Disasters journal, 2002). Suffice it to say that in each case the shockwaves rippled out across society and led to consequences far beyond their points of origin—in time, in geography and in form of socio-economic mutation.

The Lisbon earthquake is widely held to have ushered in a darker period of history, in which the optimism of the Enlightenment was replaced by a black pessimism about the human condition and the future of society. Most probably, one cannot generalise so readily, such are the many points of view that need to be taken into account. However, continuing the parallel with modern times, it is true that there was a resurgence of militarism after the 2001 disasters, and one that could be directly connected to them. The attitude after Lisbon, when the human experience was suddenly revealed to be malevolent, was perhaps yet more authoritarian.

This brings be on to one of my favourite topics: the difference between civil defence and civil protection. The terms are often employed loosely. For example, the civil protection service of New Zealand is the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management. However, I believe it is useful and necessary to distinguish between the two forms of organisation. Civil defence, in its purest form, is a centralised, national, top-down service that is designed to protect a country against armed aggression. Originally, this was by other states, but latterly it has been practised by loosely organised ideological groups, possibly with state backing (one should not underestimate the importance in the modern era of proxy wars, however "asymmetric" they may be). Civil protection, sensu stricto, is a bottom-up, locally organised, federated system designed to protect the civilian population against natural and technological disasters. Some countries, for example Italy, have both systems clearly delineated, and in such cases they tend to complement, rather than conflict, with one another.

In organising a country or region to fight disasters (both in terms of crisis response and risk reduction), there is usually a gradual transition from military to civilian models. Information and communications technology is widely employed nowadays, and one of its effects is to flatten the chain of command. It is clear, moreover, that civil protection works best when it is allied with participatory governance.

Now according to the dictionary, 'governance' is nothing more than "the act of governing". However, for the term to mean anything in the context of disaster risk reduction, it must signify a common social process: representative democracy, but probably also a substantial dose of participatory democracy. One reason is that we need to induce people to assume more of their own risks (allowing for welfare, which I will discuss shortly), and another is that what is done to protect society needs to be based on approval by consensus.

From the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 to the San Francisco tremors and urban fire of 1906, citizens were summarily executed if they did not do what the authorities thought they should do. Authoritarianism in disaster aftermaths has not disappeared: indeed, leaders with strong personalities see it as an easy fix to complex problems—giving people a dose of what they need, whether or not they want it. However, in the last twenty or thirty years there has been much more discussion of ethics and equity than before, and the spotlight of instant publicity has fostered this trend.

At this point I think I might open a parenthesis by asking which was the first "modern" disaster? There are, of course, varying interpretations of this, and I can only offer the one that I favour. It was the Nigerian civil war of 1967-70, sometimes known as the Biafra war. A quite artificial famine was induced in the Nigerian state of Biafra as part of a 'scorched earth' policy against the rebels. This was the first time that television cameras reached the area during the crisis phase, filmed the human suffering in the raw and, with some ingenuity, played the footage on television news within a matter of hours. It was not real-time broadcasting, but it was a breakthrough that led inexorably to exactly that.

I might add that civil defence, in its modern form, probably began one morning in April 1937 at the Battle of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. It was the first concerted aerial bombardment in history. It may well have been the tipping point at which warfare started to reap a greater toll among civilians (particularly women and children) than among soldiers, which it now routinely does. The rudimentary attempts to protect the civilian population on the ground were to grow to fully-fledged systems of civil defence a few years later during the Second World War.

Origins apart, civil defence was the progenitor of civil protection. Hence it is tempting, and perhaps legitimate, to think in terms of an evolutionary process from one to the other. Is civil defence, perhaps, the darker reality and civil protection a more optimistic one in terms of the human condition? Is such an interpretation justified in terms of social, organisational and institutional evolution? Does evolution of any kind naturally bring us to a happier, more adjusted state? In this case, perhaps: civil defence is, after all, linked to warfare and conflict, while the raw material—more properly the core material—of civil protection tends to be a more morally neutral set of phenomena associated with natural disasters and unanticipated failures of technology. It is also the defence of civic values against any enemy, whether morally neutral or not.

"Man's inhumanity to man / Makes countless thousands mourn!" wrote Robert Burns in 1785. In that sense, it was inevitable that civil defence would never go away. Indeed, it could be regarded as the ethical face of warfare. Or could it?

The civil defence of the 1940s was an affair of tin hats and gas masks in canvas bags. Its operatives pulled survivors from the rubble of bomb-sites and found them makeshift accommodation. As the War was ending, the term 'iron curtain' was already being used to describe a situation that would vastly intensify once the threat of all-out nuclear conflict was fully appreciated. Civil defence in the post-War period was dominated by a series of preparations that were increasingly and demonstrably futile. If populations could survive nuclear war, what sort of world would they emerge into? Would there be a food chain at all? Would radioactive contamination wipe them out, person by person? Would the state have protected its people or only its élite? Would it have used civil defence to protect the élite against the people? We will never know, but there will always be doubts about the motives inherent in civil defence during the Cold War. In most countries it was a very secretive affair, and secrecy does not breed trust.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was one of the most symbolic moments in modern history. It led to a lapse in civil defence that, however, was anything but permanent. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that the so-called "peace dividend", the economic "beating of swords into ploughshares", lasted only until about 1994. Terrorism has conveniently provided a new Cold War. In part this is justified by the mutation of proxy wars (as practised previously in Afghanistan and Africa, for instance) into proxy-based asymmetric conflict (as practised, once again, in Afghanistan, and also the Middle East and Asia, and periodically imported into the West). For the rest it represents the resurgence and reassertion of the cold warriors after their brief period in the wilderness.

Clausewitz regarded war as "politics carried on by other means". I would prefer to see it as economics, rather than politics, "carried on by other means". Its fuel is the military-industrial complex (and in this respect it is notable that the global armaments industry has not suffered from the recession that has so deeply affected virtually every other sector of production). Let me correct myself: it is a military-industrial-academic complex, because many people in the universities are seduced by the opportunity to give it an intellectual justification. They are the retailers of fear and anguish.

So was civil defence reborn. Its first act was to suck up money in copious quantities. The links between civil defence and civil protection vary from one country to another, but, however they are configured, they are always joined at the hip by the question of funding. Their interconnection brings me to another of my pet interests: the relationship between centrism and devolution.

Civil defence is necessarily based on the nation state. If time and space permitted, I would launch a diatribe about that and the question of national identity (let me declare my interest: I am a federalist and anti-nationalist). Rather than being the natural state of human beings, nations are a relatively recent construct that in less than half a millennium has contrived a temporary solution to the questions of identity and citizenship. But the defence of the realm requires a national approach, because in most countries that is where in the hierarchy the armed forces, intelligence services and command structures are located.

In contrast, wherever it is, civil protection needs local input. Failure to organise locally, failure to support local solutions to local problems, and failure to take local interests into account will result in the failure of civil protection. Evidently, it needs to be harmonised at successively higher levels of government, or otherwise there will not be enough interoperability. And civil protection forces are moving ever further around the world's chess-board of disaster responses. In this respect one of the recent trends has been to fuse international with domestic disaster response in the interests of greater efficiency (but it needs a radical overhaul of attitudes and training).

I have been a regional government employee in two countries and have observed the local response to threats, risks and hazards as it occurs and in a variety of settings. I am convinced that it flourishes the most when it is given autonomy (but perhaps also guidance and support). Herein lies the dilemma for most national governments. Devolving power is a vote-getter, but after it has been devolved, governments tend to regret their actions and want it back. This is especially true if the intermediate and local levels of public administration turn out to be pugnaciously independent.

If civil protection is very poorly developed in a given place, once disaster strikes it will be swept aside as aid, assistance and command lines are imported into the area. Once these are withdrawn, as if they were the Roman legions marching back to defend the centre of a collapsing empire, then the local response is doomed to be the victim of its own ineffectiveness.

Local (and indeed regional and national) administrators vary in their attitudes to disaster reduction and response. This field suffers considerably from the "no votes in sewage" syndrome. In other words, come what may, it has a negative profile. Even the concepts of more safety and security don't seem to be sufficiently positive to enthuse politicians in search of re-election (or not unless there has very recently been a bad disaster in their precincts). Moreover, politicians can avail themselves of the Great Gamble: that disaster will not strike during their next term of office. As a result of the public's lack of understanding of probabilities and the need to prepare for the worse in "times of peace", they usually get away with it. If a disaster does occur, many of them are adept at blaming the failure to prepare on someone else.

Few nations can aspire to the levels of rigour and honesty that prevail in Sweden. Having discovered, amid great national scandal, that it did not have the capacity to manage the Swedish aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, it set up a national agency for civil protection. Due to lack of experience with this form of organisation, it did not work well. The Swedes learnt fast—very fast indeed—and within months had it reorganised and functioning well at all levels from Stockholm to the provincial towns. No doubt Swedes who read this will, through familiarity with defects to the system, pick holes in my description, but compared to other countries I can assure them that they are making a counsel of perfection. And the science and art of civil protection are both highly imprecise.

Now there are countries, like France, where the administrative traditions are highly centralised and are likely to remain so. They will have to find their own solutions to the problem of local autonomy in the face of disasters. Let me remind them that the opposite of such autonomy is, if I may borrow a bastard term, assistentialism. By ironic reference to existentialism, this is dependence on imported assistance. Once the source of that help dries up, nothing is left but a dependence on something that is not there. It tends to kill local initiative.

To watch other countries deal with the problem of managing disasters and associated risks is to chart the progress of a constant, often very dynamic, tension between centrism and devolution. The latter solves problems, but it does so by engendering the fear that things will get out of hand.

A subsidiary issue connected with this tension between centrism and devolution is that of the dual roles of imported and indigenous knowledge. Throughout this discussion, I use the term 'imported' to mean "brought into the area in question", but not necessarily across an international border. Imported technologies, know-how and procedures are often vilified for their effect in depleting local autonomy and making local communities dependent on extraneous ways of doing things that, perhaps, they don't fully understand. This is often very true, most sadly, but it would be wrong to glorify all indigenous knowledge, some of which is positively toxic. For example, after the 1964 Great Alaskan Earthquake it was reported that Inuit fishermen had a tradition which informed them that tsunamis are composed of two waves. Many were drowned by the third wave, which was the largest in the 1964 sequence. But now back to the primary distinction.

Theoretically, both civil defence and civil protection are potential hand-maidens of revolution, or at least of insurrection. In fact, in the politically polarised times of the Cold War, with all their associated fears and suspicions, in places, civil protection was actively prevented from developing, in case it led to a coup d'êtat. This, of course, was when civil protection was seen as a sub-military parallel to the armed forces.

Although few generals, majors and colonels will admit it, military commanders often feel out of their depth when dealing with disasters. Such events are a shadowy, ambiguous form of enemy and many of the tactics used to deal with unruly citizens can only be practised on the very people the armed forces are seeking to protect. Hence the gradual 'civilianisation' of civil defence and its transition into civil protection. When the leaders of the latter are no longer military men but are trained women, we will have arrived. Many women have shown extraordinary aptitude as disaster managers, although it is not yet clear whether this is because they are naturally superior at the job to men or merely because to make progress they are forced to compete in a male-dominated world. I suspect the former.

So the tension of opposites between civil defence and civil protection is likely to continue. Civil protection does not do some of the things that civil defence does, notably forensic analysis, surveillance and intelligence gathering. But civil defence tends to be inept at managing natural disasters on the local level. The military-industrial academic complex would have us believe that the threats from extreme natural events are relatively stable, while those from terrorism and unrest are growing dynamically. In reality it could be the other way around, especially given the potential effects of climate change. True, the momentous adaptations that a dynamic climate will require of human populations will probably foment unrest, but is the solution civil defence, or is it greater equity in the distribution of resources? And greater emphasis on the stewardship of the resources we have?

One issue that arises out of all of this is welfare. Strictly conceived, this is the provision of assistance necessary for adequately decent living conditions to people who cannot provide such a thing for themselves. Unfortunately, welfare has tended to mutate into largesse, and this often has a political motivation behind it. The effect of this has been to cheapen the concept and render it both unworkable and unacceptable to society. Yet welfare will always be needed, unless one subscribes to such a Darwinian view that one believes that social misfits and losers in the great lottery of life should be callously abandoned to their fate.

Hence, welfare needs constantly to be redefined and reinvented. It should go hand in hand with the sort of empowerment (big governance rather than big government) that enables some people to avoid it. And we need to avoid attitudes to welfare that resemble those of the Victorian moralists: properly conceived, it is neither a social disease nor an intolerable burden on society.

Although it is not a tension of opposites, resilience and sustainability need to be considered together. The one is the other. Hence, the sustainability of disaster risk reduction is the sustainability of lifestyles and livelihoods, and of the Earth's carrying capacity. No technofix can ensure that, so the problem is social and cultural, even emotional, as much as it is one of applying more and more technology.

We have moved away from the idea of the New Baroque Era and the tension of opposites. There are many of these and I encourage those who have patiently followed this discussion to seek and identify them. Is resilience the opposite of vulnerability, and is the change in emphasis a useful switch from a negative to a more positive view of disaster? Can we better solve the problem by adopting a "can-do" approach, or must we first develop a better understanding of the sum total of human suffering and misery.

To end these talks, I pose the question, what comes after resilience? Like everyone else I don't know, and I have no crystal ball that reveals the future to me. Like all committed scientists and citizens, I have tried to follow the trends, and reflect on where they are taking us. So I leave you with a possible clue: perhaps the tension is between fragility and hardening. And I leave you to work out what that might mean for disaster risk reduction. Thank you for your attention.