Saturday, September 24, 2016

Why Study Disasters?

People often ask me how I got into research, and disaster research in particular. It was actually quite accidental. In late 2005, I was a postgraduate architecture student at Queen's University Belfast, trying to pin down a topic for my research thesis. The list of potential supervisors included a recently arrived academic with an interest in 'building performance in extreme events'. Just months previously, Hurricane Katrina had devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast. I was concerned, as a citizen and as a budding designer. I knew little about disasters, and even less about research.


This, my very first research project, opened my eyes to the incredible complexity of disasters and piqued my interest, for good. I realised quickly that the wind, the storm surge and the flooding experienced in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina, were only the most superficial factors contributing to this disaster. This was quite profound for me, and challenged the myth that I had so easily absorbed; that disasters are natural occurrences. They certainly are not. As I investigated the many reasons for death and destruction during my field work, I started to understand that disasters were caused primarily by humans living in vulnerable conditions.

Since that first research project, I have undertaken investigations in a range of diverse contexts around the world. I have become a part of the scientific community and seen the rapid growth of a body of knowledge related to the study of disasters. It is a research domain that has emerged in various fields, and one in which cross-disciplinary collaboration is absolutely essential, if not always enacted. It is a domain that naturally challenges silos; one that attempts to solve problems where shared expertise is vital to obtaining the right solution. I feel a great belonging in that space, and I deeply respect those who choose to spend time there. 

Now, that is not to say that my area of research is devoid of the 'academic' problems that challenge other research areas. It is not easy to secure funding for cross-disciplinary research, for one. Both funders and reviewers seem confused by the concept. As a result, many potentially high-impact projects are shelved. Perhaps more significantly, research for the common good is not seen as a worthwhile investment. The Australian government recently paid Bjorn Lomborg's Copenhagen Consensus Centre $640,000 for their contribution to a report stating that investing in disaster resilience for poor people was likely to yield 'poor returns'. Somehow I'm not convinced that the poor would agree. You can always count on the elite to decide whose lives are 'worth it'. Funding is directed towards projects that comply with allegedly depoliticised agendas (I.e. Uphold and if you really have to, reform, the status quo). Such incremental change will not save us. 

Most scholars in disaster-related areas recognise that 'managing disasters', while essential of course in the event, is not going to prevent future losses. We must instead focus on reducing the level of existing risk and preventing the creation of new risk. As losses mount and our future becomes more uncertain, the call to deal with the root causes of disaster is gaining momentum. These root causes are not natural. We have a choice. Humans are in the driving seat of risk creation and reduction. 

There are many reasons that I do what I do. Of course, the disaster field captures and holds my attention intellectually, while I personally enjoy working in a domain that involves close interaction with a diverse group of people that represent a range of perspectives and ideologies. There are, however, a number of reasons that I think that the study of disasters is particularly critical and that motivate me to continue.

1) We are rushing headlong into a calamitous future - The future is uncertain and the evidence that we have predicts apocalyptic scenarios if we do not change course but rather continue to over-consume and destroy our only world. This gives a massive sense of urgency to the research field.

2) It is a pathway to protect the vulnerable - Disasters are about people at risk. Those most affected by disasters are the most marginalised, discriminated against, dispossessed and displaced in our society. They need to have a platform for their voices to be heard. A disaster researcher has a great opportunity to connect human IMPACTS to ROOT CAUSES, and make evidence-based arguments for change. 

3) Complex, extreme conditions are not well understood - Most conventional knowledge is built on what we can predict and, ever more widely, what we can model. Outliers are not recognised in our computations and as a society we are broadly ignorant of disaster risk. We need more complete, more straightforward and more challenging data. 

4) It is an outlet for activism - Disasters are political! Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. The biggest challenges in communicating truths about disaster are myths and misconceptions, widely held in our society. BUT people are interested, and they do care. Convincing arguments can be made and turned into action in this field that certainly grabs the attention. 

5) The current system is not working - The status quo is creating risk, not reducing risk. Our leaders are either blind to the dangers of maintaining the social/economic/political order or are owned by special interests in rejecting the consideration of alternatives. The study of disasters provides a perspective on this dilemma. 

6) Disasters highlight socio-economic inequality and injustice - This is a unique place from which to critique the many structural failures in our society. As we investigate why people are at risk, how they are impacted and how they can avoid future calamity, we have the opportunity to collaborate with other disciplines to develop more holistic responses to injustice.

I choose to express my deviance and my rejection of the status quo through my research activities. I want to spend time asking uncomfortable questions and challenging orthodox views. Within the disaster sphere there are of course many 'safe' subjects and my observation is that those asking the right questions are often a) young and idealistic (uncorrupted?) and likely to be dismissed as naive by more established peers or b) distinguished Professors that are likely to be dismissed as cynical and cranky. On both end, deviants have their ideas labeled 'too radical' and just 'unfeasible'.  I think what they mean is inconvenient.

I'm sure that there are many more reasons that the study of disasters is important. These are just some of my thoughts to get the conversation started. Why are you interested in this subject? Please feel free to share your thoughts, ideas and perspectives. I would love to hear what others have to say. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

We Must Democratise Disaster Risk Creation

As we know all to well, those impacted most by disasters are the poor, the marginalised and the dispossessed. Base vulnerability underpins disaster risk. The most pervasive driver of risk creation is a political and economic system that operates for the benefit of the powerful, and to the detriment of the powerless. Those that face the greatest threats in the 21st Century have no voice, no representation and no justice.


This system is inherently undemocratic. There is nothing that the powerful fear more than empowered peasants. Western democracy has become little more than a show, having been bought and paid for by special interests. In the United States we are told to choose a 'lesser evil' candidate from the ruling parties, while the dying two-party system fights to ensure that progressive change can never take any real hold. The great global institutions, the UN, the IMF and the World Bank, despite a pretence to represent democratic ideals, fight largely to uphold a status quo that enables continuing neo-imperial conquest and accumulation of private wealth at the expense of those least able to defend themselves. If we are hoping for neoliberal institutions to save humanity, we are still asleep.


The more that we invest in and perpetuate the injustice of this system, the more rapidly risk is created. The public are largely unaware or ignorant when it comes to disaster risk, particularly in consumer-driver societies where immediate self-gratification has replaced any sense of community responsibility. Politicians skirt the issue so as to avoid spending on core risk reduction solutions (may demand more health, education, welfare, science spending!), preferring to save the day in the event of a disaster rather than take any proactive action that may not 'pay off'. Re-election is generally more important than service.

The actions of a political class that has gone all-in for a neoliberal system based on economic myth, 'legal' corruption and global corporate dominance, are creating endless new risk, faster than people can be drawn out of risky starting conditions. Whether it is taking away social safety nets in Australia to 'help' people discipline themselves, or assisting developing countries with unrepayable loans that primarily serve the lender and its collaborating countries and corporations, there are few glimmers of hope WITHIN the system. It is easy to see why voters in the UK, the US and around the world are determining to 'burn it all down', whether or not they support the extremist demagogues that are leading such movements.

Will we survive the challenges that this Century will bring? It's possible. I hold out hope that we can still deviate from this destructive course, that democracy can be saved and that most people actually care about each other. We must, however, democratise disaster risk creation. No longer can we allow those in power to create risk, reap the financial reward, and socialise the losses. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The US Presidential Election: Lesser Evil for Whom?

Trump or Clinton? Who will America choose?

This is the question on everyone's lips, from Brooklyn to Bangkok. The U.S. Commander-in-Chief represents a position as close to complete power as exists in the modern world.  The global economy hinges on U.S. interests, and its President is head of arguably the largest and most dominant military force the world has ever seen. The relationship between the economy and the military is unmistakable, and dictates foreign policy. The choice to be an economic ally of the U.S. is hardly a choice at all.

Source: CNBC
During the month of July, we witnessed the circus that was both the Republican and Democratic Conventions, where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were nominated as Presidential candidates by their respective parties. Trump's key message was that America is in deep trouble and that he is the only one that can save it. With a message that echoed Ronald Reagan, he insisted that he will restore law, order and greatness. He argued for a withdrawl from the global community, an 'America-first' position, ignorant of the face that America is indeed the primary beneficiary of globilization. "Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America first, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect, the respect that we deserve. The American people will come first once again." (Trump acceptance speech)

Hillary's message, as expected, was much more focused on 'issues' but rather cliched, leaving many sceptical. There was not really a central theme to the speech, or the Convention, bar that voters need to save America from Trump, and that Hillary is that saviour. "America's strength doesn't come from lashing out. Strength relies on smarts, judgement, cool resolve, and the precise and strategic application of power. That's the kind of Commander-in-Chief I pledge to be." (Clinton acceptance speech) 'Strategic application of power' indeed. Among the massive protests from within her own party, the walkouts, the heckling and a DNC coffin over the fence, the 4-day show served more to alienate progressives rather than unify.

Even as Noam Chomsky, the darling of the left, threw his weight behind the idea of Lesser Evil Voting (for Hillary), Andrew Smolsky countered that in Clinton we have a candidate with a "clear record, from Serbia to Libya, from Honduras to Paraguay, of supporting coups, militarization of authoritarian regimes, breaking international law, and genuinely following the neoconservative playbook in trying to make the 21st Century another century of American hegemony and empire". Her demonstrated 'experience' advocates for exactly the ideology and practical application that Chomsky has spent decades fighting.

There is something entirely flawed in our acceptance of a flawed hegemonic political system, and it inevitably leads us down the path of lesser evil voting. Will Clinton be better than Trump? Ben King argues that 'it doesn't make the threat of fascism go away with Trump losing, it makes the the eventual fascism likely to be even worse.' The amount of anger now directed at hackers, protesters and conscience voters has intensified, largely from the left. Self-professing liberals are smearing Green candidate Jill Stein, even though she is campaigning on a revolutionary platform that more Americans identify with (well, they would if they knew about it) than either of the two main-party candidates.

If Trump does become president, there will be an inevitable wave of progressive insurgency mobilised by the left and in 2020 the challenger for the White House will likely be rooted in this insurgency. If Clinton becomes president, she will continue with a strictly neoliberal agenda, while the insurgency will rise up from the far-right. Progressives will have been widely co-opted by the Clinton campaign as a lesser evil and will be more disillusioned than outraged.

So, where do we want to be in 2020? Perhaps it's time to rethink the political system before complete meltdown. A great start would be opening the presidential debates to 3rd parties so that at least voters are aware that they have options.
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