Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Tinder-Box Tower: Fire and the Neo-Liberal Model of Disasters

During the night of Wednesday 14th June 2017 a fire developed in Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey residential block in North Kensington, London. The building was quickly engulfed by the flames and within 24 hours it was a burnt-out wreck. At the time of writing, the death toll has not been established, but it is probably between 70 and 90 people. Many of them were trapped on upper floors by the fast rising flames. The emergency response was massive and extremely rapid. This was only the third 40-engine fire response since the 1960s. It was the first time for many years that more than 100 firemen were committed to a highly dangerous environment. Despite their professionalism and heroism, at that point no fire-fighting operation could have stopped tragedy from unfolding.

It is a principle of the construction of tall buildings that in the event of damage to one floor progressive collapse should not happen. This principle was consolidated after a gas explosion in 1968 at Ronan Point, a 22-storey residential block in east London, led to the domino-like collapse of an entire corner of the building. In this case, the lesson was taken on board and governed practice. Another well-known principle is that fire should not be able to leap from floor to floor and thus climb the building. The speed and ferocity with which it did so at Grenfell Tower were quite extraordinary. Here, the lesson of past events was not transformed into safer practice. The building lacked a sprinkler system (whose installation would have cost less than 2.5 per cent of the cost of the renovations that took place over the period 2014-2016). Instead, for insulation purposes, the building was clad with panels that were not fire resistant, and the question now arises as to whether the building codes were observed, or whether they were at fault.

A further element of the Grenfell Tower disaster is that it exposed the gap in living conditions between wealthy and poor residents. The location of the tower, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, is the wealthiest residential district in the United Kingdom, with the highest property prices. The northern part of the borough presents an entirely different picture. In fact, it is one of the most deprived enclaves of London and the United Kingdom. It is evident that the resources of the borough have not been channelled into making living conditions safe for the residents. The contrast between extreme wealth and relative poverty in the same local district is a salutary reminder of socio-economic conditions in 2017 and an illustration of the consequences of almost half a century of the divergence of living standards between rich and poor.

In the days that followed the fire there was much debate about the scope and quality of the response, about the division and assumption of responsibilities and about the fact that the Grenfell Residents' Association had spent four years warning the building's owner and operator about fire risks.

The neo-liberal model of disasters suggests that they are often used as a means of consolidating power and exploiting the poor and needy (Klein 2008, Loewenstein 2015). Here is a case which illustrates neoliberalism in its other guise, in which the leaders and arbiters of society care very little or not at all about the conditions of risk under which the poor live. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is the richest local authority in Britain: why could it not support its own residents, and why did it condemn them to live in patently dangerous conditions? The answers to these questions lie in political priorities and how they are formulated, marketed and supported.


Klein, N. 2008. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 576 pp.

Loewenstein, A. 2015. Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe. Verso Books, London, 376 pp.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Disaster Risk Reduction: A Dose of Reality

The Times, 1922

I am now going to discuss things that I have not been invited to say, that you don't particularly want to hear, that are not part of my brief, and that will not seem relevant to your interests. I would like to share ideas that are not even half-formed, about problems that I can't prove are important, for which I have absolutely no solution.

Francis Fukuyama wrote about "the end of history", a catchy but facile idea. The kindest criticism is that he must have wanted a metaphor for something else, whatever it might have been. Human social development is certainly not ending, but where is it going? What we are actually seeing is the end of historiography, and no doubt it is a temporary end. Collectively, we are confronted with changes that are so profound they have only tenuous analogues in history, so complex that any simple projection of historical trends into the future tells us next to nothing. As a result, there is a widespread reluctance to look at history, to compare our predicament with that of people in the past and to try to extract wisdom from seeing "how it turned out". That is a pity, as history still has very much to teach us. But unfortunately history seems to change as much as the modern world does, for it has always been a matter of selective interpretation of half-known facts. Sadly, for many people, history has become the nostalgic theme park of illusion rather than a source of clear inspiration. More darkly, history is the justification of ideology, and that is a powerful stimulus to analyse it with a great deal of selectivity.

For the past two years I have had an increasing feeling that we are all on the wrong track. The journal that I founded and edit, the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction will this year have a submission rate of over 1,000 manuscripts. I have to look at all of them and I am increasingly getting the sensation that we are all on the wrong track, that we are missing the point. The world changes far faster than science does. In DRR we still use theory compiled in the period 1945-1970. The latter year is the one in which increasing global economic inequality started to invalidate it.

Orthodoxy tells us that hazards act upon vulnerability to create risk and disaster. Abating hazards and reducing vulnerability makes people and their communities happier, healthier and safer. But it isn't that simple. Constructing an alternative interpretation is going to be monumentally challenging.

One ingredient is "manufactured consent", as Herman and Chomsky described it (Herman and Chomsky 2008). When Chomsky wrote his critique of the process, he only had to deal with what we now call traditional media, and with a larger, less powerful world-wide oligarchy. Since then, there has been a massive concentration of wealth into fewer hands and a constantly widening wealth differential between the super-rich and the poor and relatively poor (Oxfam 2017). The years since the period 1970-73 have seen a sustained transfer of wealth from the poor who produce it to the rich who command and consume it. Much of that has been achieved by 'democratic' means, in which the choices presented to voters ask them to confirm processes that act to their own disadvantage. Democracy has become a plebiscite of the unpalatable.

Big data and the apparently uncontrolled networks of social media, coupled with changes in people's predilections for how they obtain and interpret information, have opened up new vistas. In the same way that people's shopping habits can be tracked and exploited, so can their political leanings, policy knowledge and voting preferences. To do so successfully requires massive resources, and massive resources are being devoted to this process (Davies 2017, Cadwalladr 2017, Grassegger and Krogerus 2017). Conspiracy theories are almost always a waste of time, but perhaps we are arriving at a point in which they may be self-fulfilling hypotheses rather than mere fantasy.

In the industrial revolution, automation created a disenfranchised underclass and then transformed it (Sale 1995). That is happening again, but some have argued that the opportunities for positive change are much fewer this time. There have been prediction that, as a consequence, social differentiation may widen until it forms an unbridgeable abyss. The more extreme among the futurologists have invoked a Wellsian dystopia (Wells, 1895, 1910). Anyone who reads not only H.G. Wells's longer novels but also his short stories will know that he was an extremely acute observer of the effects of social class upon people's development (see, for example, the tragic outcome of A Slip Under the Microscope - 1896).

In my lifetime - so far! - world population has almost tripled. Technological developments have occurred that would have been utterly inconceivable in 1953 when I first opened my eyes. Technological advances have spurred cultural changes of momentous importance. The pace of change continues to accelerate.

The dark side of humanity continues to develop. The arms trade becomes ever more lucrative and fuels more and more deadly conflicts in more and more places ((Akerman and Larsson 2014, Kassimeris and Buckley 2016)). Fuelled by the major producers of materiel (the USA, Russia, China, Germany and France, aided by Britain, Italy, Sweden and Israel) the arms trade has suffered no recession and has seen no barriers. If trade can globalise, so can illicit trade (in people, drugs, weapons and illegal profits), and so can terrorism. Half of world trade goes through the world's 78 tax havens (ActionAid 2013); eight men own as much as 3.6 billion people (Oxfam 2017); hidden global wealth may amount to three and a half times global GDP (Credit Suisse 2016).

Reported in this manner, these observations have the disadvantage that they are not tied to any particular system of explanation or an agenda for positive change. For disaster specialists, they suggest one powerful problem: much of the progress based on the traditional models that create a link between simple actions and positive progress is likely to be illusory. If not, it is nonetheless at risk of being summarily reversed.

One problem with constructing an alternative system is that any schema for interpreting disasters must be built upon a model of society, but society is changing too fast for the basic model to be stable. The goalposts seem to be moving around the pitch faster than the ball.

The first part of the solution to this problem is to acquire a healthy dose of realism. The actual environment in which we conduct our studies is no longer that of orthodox, traditional models. It is also capable of massive, rapid change. Secondly, in democracies, consent is increasingly managed or manufactured, and by ever more subtle and insidious means. Before we analyse or attempt to influence the agenda in favour of disaster risk reduction (DRR), we should be asking who controls it. Thirdly, the roots of almost all DRR are political. Political decisions determine what will happen and what will not. Human rights violations, corruption, undue influence, the exercise of arbitrary power, internment, forced migration, violence against citizens and failure to protect them are all potential negative consequences of the modern human predicament, and they stem from politics. It follows that scientific logic will be subordinate to political logic, often known as expediency, and sometimes as opportunism. Professor Terry Cannon notes that in climate change expenditures on things that worsen the problem, such as subsidies for fossil fuel extraction, refinement and use) are three orders of magnitude higher than expenditures on combatting the problem. This, he says, represents a 'cure to damage ratio' of 1:1000. For disasters as a whole, it seems to be about 1:46 (although I am blessed if I can locate the source of that rather tenuous assertion).

In our work we need to impose a caveat emptor. Failure to recognise the world as it is, and the real constraints on progress will diminish or annul the practical value of our work. However, once we understand the problem we can start to tackle it. In the end, even massive obstacles are no match for human ingenuity.


ActionAid 2013. How Tax Havens Plunder the Poor. ActionAid, London, 20 pp.

Akerman, A. and A. Larsson 2014. The global arms trade network 1950-2007. Journal of Comparative Economics 42(3): 535-551.

Cadwalladr, C. 2017. The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked. The Observer, London, 20th May 2017.

Credit Suisse 2016. Global Wealth Report 2016. Credit Suisse Research Institute, Z├╝rich, 63 pp.

Davies, W. 2017. How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next. The Guardian, London, Thursday 19 January 2017.

Grassegger, H. and M. Krogerus 2017. The Data That Turned the World Upside Down. January 28, 2017. Art, Life, You.

Herman, E.S. and N. Chomsky 2008. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (revised edition). Bodley Head, London, 408 pp.

Kassimeris, G. and J Buckley (eds) 2016. The Ashgate Research Companion to Modern Warfare. Routledge, London, 486 pp.

Oxfam 2017. An Economy for the 99%. Oxfam Briefing Paper, January 2017. Oxfam, Oxford, 48 pp.

Sale, K. 1995. Rebels Against the Future: the Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age. Addison-Wesley, Boston, Mass., 320 pp.

Wells, H.G. 1895. The Time Machine. Penguin Classics (2005). Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK, 144 pp.

Wells, H.G. 1910. The Sleeper Awakes. Penguin Classics (2005). Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK, 288 pp.