Thursday, 15 December 2016

Disaster Risk Reduction in the Post-Truth World

There is a footnote in my book Confronting Catastrophe (Alexander, 2000), which runs as follows:-
 "Thus the alarm bells rung by Vance Packard in his 1950s book The Hidden Persuaders (Packard 1981 - a classic critique of advertising) have largely been ignored. His death in 1997 was greeted with a resounding silence on the part of the chattering classes and the mass media he criticized so aptly. Perhaps that was their revenge."
This small intellectual aside has become more, not less, important since I wrote it.

Advertising is the creation of illusion in order to further the consumption of goods and services. My lifetime, 63 years, is a period in which the population of the world, the army of consumers, has more or less tripled and at the same time we have become inured to advertising. During these six decades it has gradually become more and more insidious until it has a finger in, and sometimes a stranglehold over, virtually all of our activities.

Advertising has developed a remarkably strong synergy with the entertainment industry, another great producer of illusion. Many people have grown up in a world in which these giants of human fantasy are two of the principal points of reference to which our model of the human condition is anchored. This is fertile terrain for the growth of post-truth politics. Politics these days is heavily dependent on advertising. Once it loses its moral compass, and once the electorate no longer expects truthfulness, then any old lie will suffice.

Now the last thing we need in disaster risk reduction is illusion. And the first thing we need to do is face up to reality, however brutal it may be. Is DRR perhaps the antidote to advertising? Perhaps it is, or should be, but how is it served by "post-truth politics"?

In 1918 Hiram W. Johnson, a Republican senator from California, is reputed to have coined the phrase "The first casualty when war comes is truth." His observation is not surprising when one considers that politics and economics are behind war. But is the same true of disaster? Observers of the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima would argue that truth was very much the first casualty (Kushida 2012). Moreover, the effect of this was to damage or destroy the bond of trust between government, science and the people.

Is this part of a trend or an isolated incident? I suggest that it is neither. In 1986 the Soviet Government struggled to conceal the Chernobyl disaster until the plume of radiation across Europe meant that the pretence could no longer be sustained (Moynagh 1994, p. 724). In this it followed a long tradition of secrecy after disaster that had been prevalent in the USSR and China (which until 1986 did not allowed foreign scrutiny of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake). Yet in both Russia and China the situation has changed: it could hardly be otherwise in a world dominated by instantaneous electronic communication and 'citizen journalism'. Moreover, secrecy and outright lies are slightly different traits.

If indeed politics have entered a new era in which truth no longer sways electorates, will this situation extend to disaster risk reduction and the management of disaster impacts? I think there are grounds for limited optimism. Pluralism is the antidote to Great Historical Lies, and pluralism cannot be suppressed by disaster, nor, in the modern age, can it so easily be suppressed by dictatorship.


Alexander, D.E. 2000. Confronting Catastrophe: New Perspectives on Natural Disasters. Dunedin Academic Press, Edinburgh, and Oxford University Press, New York, 282 pp.

Kushida, K.E. 2012. Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Narrative, Analysis, and Recommendations. Shorenstein APARC Working Paper. The Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University, Stanford, California, 73 pp.

Moynagh, E.B. 1994. The legacy of Chernobyl: its significance for the Ukraine and the world. Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review 21(4): 709-751.

Packard, V.O. 1981. The Hidden Persuaders. Pocket Books, New York, 288 pp.