Sunday, 24 April 2022

Foresight

A principle of cascading disasters is that the world is ever more closely linked by networks on which we all depend for communications, commerce, enlightenment and entertainment. When disaster strikes, these networks are capable of transmitting impacts through a variety of domains and system states, each of which produces different consequences. The cascade is a result of the progression of a shock through different kinds of vulnerability. To categorise these as social, economic, psychological, environmental, institutional, and so on is to oversimplify the mechanisms within them and the connections between them.


Behind this scenario is globalisation. The term has many different meanings. It can signify a means of diversifying assets so as to optimise the way they can be used to exploit people, for example, by shifting manufacturing production to places where wages can most easily be suppressed. It can also mean communication over very long distances, leading to the adoption of common agendas among disparate groups of people. In globalisation there is a degree of uniformity of culture, tastes and social mores. This makes it easy to spread concepts that are compatible with the culture, tastes and mores.

There has recently been a surge of research interest in disaster and conflict (ref). It is obvious that military instability is likely to complicate and retard the process of getting natural hazard impacts under control. Everyday risk factors are different when floods, transportation crashes, landslides, toxic spills, structural collapses occur against a background of asymmetric warfare, armed insurgency, fighting or rampant terrorism. One question that is asked relatively rarely is why we exclude warfare from our definitions of disaster. Is war not a disaster in its own right? The answer is that we do so on the basis of convenience, because introducing armed conflict into the disaster equation would easily lead to unmanageable complexity.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a cascading disaster with global ramifications. It shows up failure to avoid provocation between states, failure to predict and mitigate conflict, failure to make sufficient progress in the transition away from dependency on fossil fuels, and failure to resolve disputes in the global arena. It poses challenges of coping with massive, unplanned mass migration, preventing the escalation of conflict into other states or the global arena, preventing deadlock in the United Nations Organisation and revitalising it. All of these problems have at their root a lack of foresight and an inability to create stable global governance, as well, of course, as simple bad behaviour by national leaders. Moreover, at the world scale there has been a gradual and sustained retreat from democracy as well as a retreat from the principle of right to protection (R2P). Moreover, the Coronavirus pandemic has been widely used as a pretext for curtailing human rights.

The apparent impotence of the United Nations in the face of armed aggression by one country against another might beg the provocative question “are we witnessing the end of globalisation?” Inspired by the events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago Francis Fukuyama wrote his treatise on The End of History (Fukuyama 1992). History, of course, continues to be made, both as events and as some form of human social development. One wonders whether, instead, we are seeing the end of progress. A related question is whether progress is the essential motor of globalisation, and whether globalisation would collapse without it.

Niels Bohr famously said that “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. Nevertheless, a defining malaise of our age is the failure to exercise foresight. If many things cannot be foreseen, at least they can be visualised as possibilities or probabilities. One can then ask how they would be dealt with if they materialise. We tend to analyse problems using the matrix, or within the context, that prevails at the moment. Yet the problems may materialise in a very different context in which the values in the matrix diverge substantially from those that currently prevail.

Two further observations are pertinent here. One is that the shifting context pilots events. The other is that it can be demanding and expensive (in various ways) to transform foresight into action, and it may be something that lacks broad support, especially among people who lack foresight.

We cannot understand disaster without knowledge of its root causes and the dynamic pressures that trigger the forces that precipitate it. The dynamic pressures, in turn, cannot be understood without knowledge of the context in which disaster occurs. One of the major challenges of the modern age is to understand a context which tends to broaden from the purely local to a global extent. Geopolitics, globalised production, global competition for natural resources and the world-wide effects of climate change all have local impacts and implications. Conversely, local events can have repercussions around the world. As an example, consider the impact of the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear release in Japan in 2011 on nuclear energy policy in other countries (Wittneben 2012,Kim et al. 2013).

References

Fukuyama, F. 1992. The End of History and the Last Man. The Free Press, New York, 418 pp.

Kim, Y., M. Kim and W. Kim 2013. Effect of the Fukushima nuclear disaster on global public acceptance of nuclear energy. Energy Policy 61: 822-828. DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2013.06.107

Wittneben, B.F. 2012. The impact of the Fukushima nuclear accident on European energy policy. Environmental Science and Policy 15(1): 1-3. DOI: 10.1016/j.envsci.2011.09.002

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

A Resilience Charter

 

1.    Preamble

1.1    The purpose of this charter is to specify the responsibilities of the state and citizens in the field of resilience against disasters, crises and major public emergencies and incidents.

1.2    The future of humanity will involve very significant challenges in order to create and maintain resilience. Climate change will increase the magnitude and frequency of extreme meteorological events. Unplanned mass migrations will occur. The increasing vulnerability and dwindling redundancy of life-support systems will aggravate the effect of proliferating failure among critical infrastructure networks. Opportunities for malicious attacks will become more numerous and sophisticated in both the physical and cyber realms. As a result of these and other challenges, a new, more concerted approach to resilience is urgently required.

2.    Working definitions

2.1    ‘Resilience’ is defined as the ability to absorb and resist the impact of a major adverse event and to recover promptly. Recovery involves ‘bouncing back’ or better still ‘bouncing forward’ to a state of greater safety.

2.2    ‘Disaster’ refers to an event that causes damage, destruction, interruption of services and important activities, and possibly casualties. Its impact may sudden, slow or repetitive. A ‘major incident’ is an adverse impact that requires immediate attention from emergency services and a switch from normal to emergency working patterns. In this context, ‘crisis’ refers to those situations in which extraordinary measures are required in order to ensure public safety or prevent escalating damage and losses.

2.3    ‘Safety’ refers to protection against major hazards such as storms, floods and industrial explosions. ‘Security’ involves protection against major threats, such as terrorist activity.

2.4    ‘Civil protection’ refers to the system designed to protect the public and assets against disasters and other major adverse impacts. ‘Civil defence’ refers to the system designed to protect non-combatants against armed aggression, which is nowadays usually in the form of terrorism or interference in critical activities by nefarious groups that may or may not be sponsored by rival states. Some countries prefer to treat civil protection and civil defence as a unified function of the central state.

3.    The state

3.1    Every country needs a basic law that establishes its civil protection system and specifies in broad terms how the system functions. The term ‘civil protection system’ describes coordinated national, regional and local arrangements designed to plan for, manage and respond to major emergencies, and to initiate recovery from them. At all levels the system must be integral, robust and complete.

3.2    National standards should be developed to ensure that emergency plans are functional and compatible with one another, and that they ensure the interoperability of emergency services and functions. All levels of public administration should be required to produce emergency plans and maintain them by means of periodic updates.

3.3    Civil protection must be developed at the local authority level, coordinated regionally and harmonised nationally. The main functions of national government are (a) to provide leadership, direction and guidance to lower levels of public administration, (b) to provide an open, accessible hub or pole of attraction for civil protection and civil defence activities in the national realm, (c) to support local and regional initiatives to develop the system and respond to emergencies, (d) to lead training and learning initiatives in this sector, and (e) to liaise with other countries in matters of civil protection and civil defence.

3.4    Local mayors or chief executives should have a primary role in ensuring that arrangements are in place for emergency planning, management and response.

3.5    The central government must ensure that resources are adequate to respond to the kinds and levels of emergency that are envisaged in planning scenarios.

3.6    Emergency planning and management should be fully professionalised, with educational and training requirements, professional associations, credit for experience, a career path and an employment structure at all levels, from national to local. The private sector should be encouraged to follow suit.

3.7    Emergency management and response should be a civilian responsibility and should be fully demilitarised. National armed forces should be utilised only in exceptional circumstances where there can be no civilian alternative.

3.8    Regional coordination should ensure that local efforts to instil civil protection and respond to emergencies are supported by mutual assistance and resources from higher levels of government.

3.9    ‘Welfare’ can be defined as the provision of care to a minimum acceptable standard to people who are unable adequately to look after themselves. The welfare function of disaster risk reduction must be defined by the central state and practised so that adverse impacts do not accentuate inequality in society and the burden of disaster is shared equitably. Conversely, ‘welfare’ should not be interpreted as public largesse. It should consist of targeted assistance based on reasonable, ethically acceptable criteria.

3.10    All levels of government should develop business continuity plans to ensure that their essential services can continue to be delivered during crisis conditions. The business continuity plans will function in parallel to emergency response plans.

3.11    National, regional and local authority emergency plans should be complemented by compatible emergency plans for hospitals, health systems, dangerous manufacturing sites, airports, cultural heritage sites and other key installations. Plans should be networked.

4.    The citizen

4.1    It is the responsibility of all citizens to consider, as far as they are able, their relationship with hazards and threats.

4.2    Volunteer work should be encouraged in disaster risk reduction and kindred fields. However, spontaneous voluntarism is not recommended. Volunteers need to be trained, equipped and their organisations need to be incorporated into the civil protection system. Government should provide support to voluntary organisations and consider legislating on employment protection (for those who are abruptly required to carry out emergency work) and accident and liability insurance.

4.3    Civil protection should be organised as a democratic, participatory system in which members of the public have a say in arrangements designed to protect them against hazards and threats.

4.4    'Community' refers to the association of citizens united by common interests that may be bound up with geographical locations of various sizes. State-sponsored civil protection should engage with and encourage community-level efforts to create and promote resilience.

5.    The private sector

5.1    The providers of privatised essential services should be designated as first category responders, with a duty to ensure that the companies and sites have both functional emergency plans and viable business continuity plans.

5.2    Strong links should be developed between the emergency planners in private sector concerns and emergency planning and management departments at appropriate levels of public administration. This is especially important for the providers of all forms of critical infrastructure.

6.    Foresight

6.1    When considering threats and hazards, emergency planning and preparedness must focus on both the short term (several years) and the long term (decades).

6.2    Wherever it is feasible, emergency plans should be based on scenarios. There should be flexible, systematic explorations of possible future outcomes. The assumptions that underlie them should be specified in detail and the results should be presented as a suite or envelope of outcomes, of which the upper limit is the worst plausible case - i.e., the worst impact that could reasonably be expected in a definable time-period extending over several decades.

Thursday, 17 March 2022

The Disaster of War


By convention, when we study disasters we exclude warfare. It is not easy to find a completely logical reason for this. It is more a matter of convenience and a feeling that to conflate the two phenomena would lead to problems because not all generalisations about the one are applicable to the other. At the same time, there is always the basic truth that war is a disaster in its own right because of the casualties, suffering and destruction that it causes. Moreover, as we are seeing in Ukraine and surrounding countries, it is all too often accompanied by a major humanitarian emergency.

In recent years there has been increasing interest in trying to understand the intersectionality between war and other forms of disaster. The other forms are natural hazard impacts (please do not call them ‘natural disasters’ as they, too, are largely the result of human agency), technological failures, social movements (riots, crowd crushes, unplanned mass migrations, etc.), intentional disasters (essentially terrorism) and composite events. Such is the complexity of modern life that the last of these categories predominates. We live in networked societies and disasters tend to be events with cascading consequences.

In recent days, vast numbers of women, children and the elderly have crossed international boundaries as they have fled the fighting in Ukraine in what has become Europe’s fastest mass migration since the 1940s. As a result, we have a humanitarian emergency that encompasses primarily Ukraine itself and six countries on its western borders but potentially the whole of Europe. In Ukraine the challenge is to provide basic necessities under highly dangerous conditions and via an infrastructure that is becoming more and more damaged and fragmentary. Outside Ukraine it is a matter of accommodating hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of whom come from families that have been split up by the war.

Gone are the times when war was fought on a battlefield between assembled armies. There is no room any more for a Napoleon or a Wellington. In modern warfare everyone and everything is a target. Grain, fertiliser, gas, oil and minerals are casualties as well as people, and so are those who depend on these commodities and are deprived by shortage or rising prices from accessing them.

In a world that faces grim challenges in dealing with climate change, ecological catastrophe, loss of the carrying capacity of the land and problems with the vulnerability of technology, the last thing we need is a major war. Nothing can compensate for the loss of life and destruction of people’s living conditions that it causes, but it may yet accelerate the transition towards more sustainable consumption and more rational ways of living. Amid the lies and manipulations that lie behind the aggression, there is also solidarity and rationality. Let us hope that in spite of everything these admirable qualities will prevail. We need them so that we can confront the next disaster.

 

 

Tuesday, 15 February 2022

For New Research Students: How to Stop Floundering


I must admit that I was in the middle of my post-doctoral fellowship (at UCL) before I fully realised what research involves. It suddenly clicked while I was desperately trying to learn clay chemistry in order to work out a rather intractable problem of erosional landscapes. How on earth had I managed to get through all the previous stages?

Having decided to embark on a research project, the first big hurdle is “how do I do this?” or “what do I do next?” Obviously, it is a bigger problem for PhD theses than for  a one-year master’s, in which less than half of the year is devoted to the thesis. I defined my own PhD as one year of optimism, one year of desperation and one year of salvaging something from the wreckage (but I did get it done in three years and got it passed by the examiners with minor amendments).

I often see students floundering in those early stages. The question of “how to define a research project and get on with it” can feel like a slippery cliff face on which there are no hand- and toe-holds. Here are some reflections on how to get to grips with the problem.

If there is one thing you need to learn first and foremost, it is clear, logical thinking: thinking that is unencumbered by “ifs” and “buts” and “also”. Thinking with a logical progression: A leads to B leads to C. Develop a framework based on logical connections between the parts. One key word is ‘feasibility’. If your investigation takes a particular direction, can it be done in three years? Is it likely to produce results?

Developing a viable research project involves striking a delicate balance between taking risks and playing safe. The project needs to be innovative, but not to the extent that it is too ambitious to succeed.

When I was at school, I was taught graphical linear programming, which is a rather rudimentary way of mathematically optimising several variables by achieving the best possible compromise between them. Designing a research project is rather like that. The variables are:-

  • time: how long will the project last and when are the deadlines?
  • resources: what can be afforded, for example regarding travel and equipment?
  • size: how big can (or should) the data set be?
  • significance: what makes this worthwhile?
  • content: what am I trying to do?

The foundations of the project can be assembled by thinking up its key words. These can be as many as needed and can be geographical (where?), topical (what?), methodological (how?), and temporal (when?). It is better to start with a small and modest idea rather than a grandiose one. If it turns out to be too modest, it is almost always far easier to scale up than to whittle down.

In a research proposal it is not what you know, it is what you intend to do that matters. This therefore needs detail and requires a concrete approach. Your central issue is how to construct a data set. Hence, you can even start from that and work back to your research questions. It is not the orthodox way of doing things, but it works in a crisis!

A hypothesis is a testable proposition, a postulate to be examined. Hypotheses are remarkably difficult to construct. They need to tread the fine dividing line between being trivial and being too difficult to test. Probably the best way to arrive at a testable hypothesis is to read the literature in a critical frame of mind. What relationships are suggested but, at least in certain circumstances, not proven? Virtually all hypotheses need to be causal, and to deal with causes that are not obvious: indeed, in the end the hypothesised causes or relationships may or may not exist.*

All research students should be fully aware of the distinction between inductive and deductive reasoning. The weakest thesis projects are those that rely on a “look-see” descriptive approach. Deduction is a much more efficient form of enquiry. Successful, functional hypotheses are by their very nature deductive. A hypothesis such as “Flood response is not very effective in _______” is not a good one. To ascertain whether the response to floods is good or bad is a matter of judgement and perhaps appropriate measurement. It does not tax the brain very much. A better hypothesis would involve an educated guess about why flood response is poor. Hypotheses are about causal relationships.

One of the first tasks of a research student is to read the literature on the topic in question. This often leads to the writing of a literature review that is unfocussed, poorly organised and far too broad. The whole purpose of the review should be to ascertain (a) what we already know about the specific topic of the research (i.e., to create a starting point for a new enquiry), and (b) to identify the gaps in knowledge of the topic that are worthy of research and have potential to conduct it.

A dissertation will need a data set. Herein lies a paradox. The data set will refer to a very specific question, place, phenomenon or whatever, but the results of analysing it will have to feed back into much larger issues. In my own doctoral research I studied 300 metres of stream channel but in so doing grappled with the question “does randomness exist?” If I did not solve it, at least it was fun and edifying to try.

So how does one stop floundering when it is necessary to formulate the great research project. First, concentrate on the essentials: (a) what you want to find out, (b) the ‘why?’ of it and causality, and (c) most importantly, the methodology and work plan - in as much detail as possible. If necessary, work back to the research questions and hypothesis from reasoning about what the data set should consist of and what secrets it is likely to yield.

*The American journalist H.L. Mencken wrote rather disparagingly that "a professor must have a theory as a dog must have fleas." Perhaps, but irritating as theories are, we cannot do without them, whereas a dog can do without fleas very well.


Thursday, 10 February 2022

How Shall We Communicate Risk in an Era of ‘Manufactured Reality’?

 

I live in a short street that connects a 15th-century convent to a Napoleonic-era theatre. On one side there is a park full of ornamental trees, in the middle there is a via crucis flanked by a double row of plane trees and the other side is lined by a row of elegant palazzi. The street is paved with flagstones and parking is forbidden by law. My neighbour parks her car outside her front door every night.  She does so even though it is only 30 metres to a legitimate car park, there is a sign forbidding parking and the local police occasionally fine her. We have tried gently to reason with her, pointing out that the street is nicer without cars in it, that bad behaviour encourages others to do the same, that the neighbours disapprove, and that the sump of her car leaks oil onto the flagstones. We have even pointed out that Pope Francis says that obeying minor laws is important, a Christian duty and an example to others. Yet in her mind none of this is sufficient to overrule the convenience of being able to go out of her house straight into her car and drive away. If the police fine her, then they are at fault and so is the law. If the neighbours disapprove, then they are misguided.

This is a very minor example of something that is multiplied a thousand times every day. Collectively, it amounts to a move away from rationality. Rational argument no longer convinces many people. It does not even overawe them if they are unable to grasp it. The result is a sort of ‘alternative reality’, in which things are as they are, not because this is a reasonable outcome, but because people have convinced themselves that this is what they believe.

Technology compounds the problem. As long ago as 1997 Henry Quarantelli observed that it “leads a double life. one which conforms to the intentions of designers and interests of power and another which contradicts them.” In the so-called information age, rational argument is increasingly impotent. In the words of Louis Theroux, “Dodgy algorithms have weaponised our anger and fear, enticing us into liking and sharing content that is false and divisive. ...[and left us] powerless to resist the spread of junk information.”

The potential conclusion of this situation involves an ancient concept called, in French, anomie (it has also been absorbed into standard English as anomy but it not widely known). The French sociologist Emile Durkheim rescued it from obscurity and used it in his 1893 book De la division du travail social (translated as The Division of Labour in Society). Anomie, or anomy, is a condition of instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values or from a lack of purpose or ideals. Corruption, bad leadership, vested interests, marginalisation, poverty, the rise of the ‘precariat’, grievance and polarisation are some of the factors that underlie it. Collective anomie amounts to a form of nihilism.

A second very pertinent concept is akrasia (ἀκρασία), the state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgement through weakness of will or want of self-command. This is sometimes intertwined with cognitive dissonance, simultaneous belief in two concepts that are mutually incompatible. For example: “dangerous earthquakes occur here; I live here; I am not endangered by earthquakes”. We might further tie these concepts into the model of information dissemination propounded by Herman and Chomsky in their book Manufacturing Consent. Chomsky elaborated on the model in his subsequent work, Letters from Lexington: Reflections on Propaganda.

I was trained as a scientist, which means that I was taught to believe that there is only one reality, which should be pursued and can be revealed by objective, rational thought. More than 40 years later, I am convinced that instead there are innumerable realities, and who is to say that my reality is more real than anyone else’s? This may seem like a false argument when it comes to conspiracy theories or judgements that are amply disproved by information that has been rigorously obtained and properly vetted. However, we live in an age in which, increasingly, information is manufactured and thus so is reality, simply because people believe the information.

I end this set of reflections with two models that are intended to show how reality is created by the power of perceptions and their transformation into shared opinions through socialisation using the powerful new tools that are available in modern mass communication, particularly social media. For many citizens, ‘reality’ has become a construct based on some degree of consensus about what is happening. This may or may not be derived from real events or legitimate interpretations of them.

I still believe in rational communication and objective reality. However, we are increasingly short of the means of bridging the ‘perception gap’ and getting people to appreciate the value of rationality. I do not have the answer to this conundrum but I do believe that we have to defend the Enlightenment, even 300 years later!


Further reading

Chomsky, N. 2004. Letters from Lexington: Reflections on Propaganda, Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, Colorado, 192 pp.

Durkheim, E. 1893. The Division of Labour in Society. (De la division du travail social, trans. G. Simpson.) The Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois, p. 431.

Herman, E.S. and N. Chomsky 1988. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Pantheon Books, New York 306 pp.

Quarantelli, E.L. 1997. Problematical aspects of the information/communication revolution for disaster planning and research: ten non-technical issues and questions. Disaster Prevention and Management 6(2): 94-106.


Wednesday, 5 January 2022

Seeing and Hearing: Underrated Skills?

The island of Capri seen from the slopes of Mount Vesuvius (photo: D. Alexander)

There are two things we don’t teach our students but we should: to see and to listen. They are virtues--and skills--that are at least as important as writing and speaking. Some would argue that they are even more important. Pierre Bonnard, the great post-Impressionist painter, said that “many people look, but few see”. How very true! It is one thing to receive a visual impression and quite another to interpret it.

For those of us who are in London, a good exercise is to catch the no. 9 bus at Aldwych, go upstairs (it is a double-decker) and travel at least as far as Knightsbridge, if not all the way to Hammersmith. Try it and look up: on the buildings of London there is a wealth of detail that is hard, and sometimes impossible, to see from ground level. There is an astonishing variety of statuary and ornamentation. It is part of the language of architecture through the ages, and its vocabulary is very rich indeed.

It is estimated that, thanks to electronic media, we come into contact with up to 70,000 images a day. Most of them are seen only fleetingly and few of them convey their full message to us. These days it is impossible not to be blasé about imagery. Contrast that with the situation in past ages, when people would travel long distances to view and marvel over a single image. In Florence in 1504, when Michelangelo Buonarroti finished his statue of David, he had it hauled into Piazza della Signoria and left in front of the city hall, Palazzo Vecchio. People came from far and wide to attach the Renaissance equivalent of ‘Post-It’ notes to the pedestal to express what they thought of the work (Forcellino 2009, p. 60). Despite the immense outpouring of creativity in Florence in that period, people were not satiated with images. They had time to weigh up and discuss each one.

Spending many hours each day staring at a small screen we run the risk of suffering from visual illiteracy. Under the constant bombardment of imagery, attention spans easily diminish. More does not mean better. Who now has time to acquire the skills to interpret images? Who now reads, for example, On Growth and Form, or The Story of Art, or The Four Books of Architecture?

To hear a recording of Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982) playing Robert Schumann’s Carnaval is to experience the perfect balance between precision and expression, for Rubinstein was one of the greatest pianists ever. It needs intense self-discipline to acquire that experience: absolute freedom from distraction, even breathing, stillness, perfectly maintained attentiveness. Only then does Rubinstein’s magic work its full wonders. None of these qualities is encouraged by electronic media; indeed, quite the reverse.

We who work or study in universities have one great mission: to interpret the human condition and communicate our findings. This is the acquisition of wisdom, which the OED defines, succinctly, as “soundness of judgement”. Hence, by definition wisdom is the opposite of superficiality. It follows that the quality of the output–shared wisdom–is a function of the quality of the input, the experience and interpretation of knowledge. Fuelling this are the impressions we receive as we live our lives, study and work.

Such is the cacophony of modern life that it may well be true that there is greater virtue  in listening than in speaking. It is never too late to learn to see and hear, to interpret space, form, sound and nuance. Nonetheless, we go to conferences to speak, not to listen. We tap away at the keyboard to write, not to read. This is perhaps not surprising given that the amount of material available to us to absorb is simply overwhelming. The Information Technology Age is of course still very young and it remains to be seen how humanity will cope with it and reach some kind of reconciliation. But as we make our uneasy progress through the ICT revolution, it is time to return to the old skills and develop our ability to understand the many languages of the visual and audible world around us.

References

Forcellino, Antonio 2009. Michelangelo: A Tormented Life. Polity Press, Cambridge UK, 344 pp.

Gombrich, Sir Ernst Hans Josef 1950. The Story of Art. Phaidon Press, London, 688 pp.

Palladio, Andrea 2000. The Four Books of Architecture (I quattro libri dell'architettura, 1570). Dover Press, New York, 110 pp.

Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth 1942. On Growth and Form (2nd edition). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1116 pp.

Rubinstein, Artur, 2016. Schumann: Carnaval, Op. 9 & Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. RCA, New York (CD).


Tuesday, 31 August 2021

A Five-Minute Plea for Better Civil Protection


Although we need to change attitudes to disaster from response to preparedness and prevention, this must not be done at the expense of our ability to respond to disasters when they occur. In the light of climate change, technological risks and migration, we will soon need civil protection systems that are an order of magnitude more powerful than those that we have now. One of their principal functions will be to limit damage.

In prevention, there is almost always a positive relationship between investment and return. In other words, spending money on preparedness saves money on damage contained and casualties avoided. We have known this in some detail since the mid-1960s. However, the time-lag between expenditure and return is often fatal to prevention initiatives because it is longer than the typical political cycle. This is not the case with response, but both prevention and response encounter the problem that impacts may or may not happen in any defined period of time, or in any measurable decision-making cycle.

What makes the present day different is that, for many kinds of disaster, recurrence intervals have shortened drastically. They will continue to do so. Disaster is a daily occurrence, along with all the bereavement, suffering, misery, destruction and curtailment that it brings in its wake. Governments have not woken up to the fact that it is now a significantly more intense phenomenon than it was in previous decades. But you haven't seen anything yet: the disasters of the future will be far worse, unless, that is, there is a miraculous sense of enlightenment.

Typically, planning for disaster is a conservative process - if it exists at all (its value is consistently underrated and its functions are consistently misunderstood). Governments tend to plan for past disasters, not future ones. We do have the foresight to anticipate what comes next: what we lack is the leadership to do something about it.

I say to leaders, it is absolutely necessary that you be radical. We need a revolution, not the usual pitifully slow and feeble pace of evolution.
  • Make emergency planning and management a key profession: develop it nationally.
  • In this technological age, move from command-and-control to coordinate-and-collaborate.
  • Modernise the culture of civil protection and make it properly inclusive.
  • Develop the system strongly so that it is a powerful, permanent presence at the local level.
  • Involve the population through consultation and the development of organised voluntarism.
  • Coordinate it regionally and harmonise it nationally - in other words, weld it into a functional system that works together at all levels.
  • Fund it well, because the consequences of not doing so will be terrible.
  • Protect your people.
By and large, governments do not want to know about disaster risk reduction. They believe they can get by without it. Nor are they particularly interested in mounting efficient and effective responses to disaster. Neither is there much demand for them to do so, such is the level of ignorance and fatalism about disasters. It is simply naive to assume that if one gives governments scientific information they will act on it. Some governments might be more likely to imprison and torture one.

We live in an age in which reality means different things to different people. To some extent, objective scientific reality has been beaten into a corner. We have to learn to fight against the kind of dissidence that causes anomie to proliferate, the breakdown of values and standards. Society is grappling with powerful technological change. It does not fully understand the vulnerability of the technology (consider, for instance, the effects of long-term loss of electricity) nor what methods should be used to control it. 

Disaster risk reduction cannot be based on a narrow view of the problem. All vulnerability is contextual (see my writings on that). Much disaster research is backward looking: that will no longer do. Have the courage to face the future - objectively. To know the problem well is half way to achieving the solution to it.