About The Resilience Institute

The Resilience Institute is part of WWU Huxley’s College of the Environment. It facilitates scholarship, education, and practice on reducing social and physical vulnerability through sustainable community development, as a way to minimize loss and enhance recovery from disasters in Washington State and its interdependent global communities.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Basic needs

I’ve been reading several different books and articles suggested by colleagues and all dealing with environmentalism and pro-environmental behavior. One of these was suggested by Scott Miles - Breakthrough: From the death of environmentalism to the politics of possibility, authored by Nordhaus and Shellenberger. This provocative, though not particularly academically-disciplined, book suggests that concerns over clean air, clean water and environmental protection historically emerged out of the post-WWII era of expansiveness. There was a wide-spread sense of economic and physical security, in sharp contrast to earlier decades of economic depression, food insecurity, and then physical security threats during the war years. Moreover, a sense of global status and purpose was provided with the new world order. With basic materialistic needs met, post-materialist needs concerns emerged for post-WWII Americans. These included a concern over quality of life and personal expression needs, some of which were to become the basis for the environmentalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

The corollary to their argument is that for many nations, for insecure sub-populations here in the United States, and even for the broader US society during times of increased insecurity, environmentalist concerns will usually remain far down on the list of people’s priorities.

There are certainly criticisms to be made about their often simplistic painting of the environmentalist movement (e.g. NY Times, here at IGCR Miles intends to write another). However, I think their arguments are still interesting to consider in light of the issues of disaster risk reduction and emergency planning.

Certainly, it is a challenge to promote long-term strategy thinking about disaster risk reduction in a community where more immediate “first order” needs have not been met. In Istanbul, where I worked on risk awareness for years, the 1950s-1990s was a period of housing insecurity due to rapid population growth. Everyone’s concern (and it shows up in the legislation, the movies, the books and people’s recollections) was on the quantity of housing, not the quality. As the housing shortage has lessened, and following a major earthquake that killed over 17,000 people, the concern has shifted towards the seismic resistance of the housing. . . that is housing quality. Yet, in the lowest income neighborhoods, the concern is still about jobs and food security and tenure security. Residents repeatedly told me that the government had to solve those issues first. Then they would worry about earthquakes.

Given the constant tensions between immediate needs and long-term threats from disasters, how do we advocate for disaster risk reduction policies? Certainly decisions made now to address these first order needs often impact our community’s future disaster resilience. Job creation, economic growth and inexpensive construction in an economically insecure community (whether that be someplace in a developing nation or right here in our own formerly forestry-oriented counties) can “build in” vulnerability to disasters years or decades down the road. Once poorly built construction is in place, it often takes an earthquake to tear it down. Flood plane encroachment has the same effect. Its hard to tear it down, once its been built. There is rarely enough political will to undo poor planning decisions prior to a disaster.

There is also a second, more hidden process that is also related to Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s argument. It difficult to sustain interest in some future disaster risk when more immediate concerns loom large, thus, without a disaster its hard to get people to prepare for one. Investment in other quality of life issues is often viewed as more important and regarded as having more immediate returns.

But, following a disaster, the situation may not improve. Following a disaster, basic needs are often not even met. In a major disaster, people are without homes, clothes, livelihoods and even without loved-ones. Their concern is once again, reverted to meeting basic needs, and meeting them fast. Concern about how decisions may impact future risk is again subservient to concerns over meeting basic needs. Following Hurricane Katrina, residents I worked with were many times more concerned about getting the right to return to their homes and neighborhoods than they were with the very substantial risk of loss and even death in future hurricanes and levee breakages if they did return. Their concerns were rational, if not unfortunate from a disaster risk reduction, policy and planning perspective.

So, what is to be done in a profession where the public will, in large, remain impassive to our major concern? I am still reading Breakthough, but the authors have some suggestions for dealing with climate change that might also apply to disaster risk reduction. They suggest that environmentalist concerned over climate change, must champion solutions that address people’s lower-level concerns for security, status and purpose. For example, be concerned about developing country debt relief if you care about the rain forests of Brazil.

The pressure and release model of disasters does the same for disaster risk reduction, highlighting root causes of disasters in other more basic human needs issues. Current international efforts are pushing this envelope. Including disaster risk reduction in the MDGs, arguing for the twins of development and risk reduction, focusing on livelihoods and disasters are all strategies that combine strict disaster risk reduction. NSET advocates better building in Nepal but appealing to the job security and status of traditional masons. Even the current US obsession with natural hazard emergencies as a mere subset of terrorism can be seen as a way of making disaster risk reduction and emergency planning as salient to people’s current perceived needs. While surely not a fool-proof strategy, methods that address risk reduction and preparedness within a framework of more basic needs may be more promising than a stricter risk reduction focus alone.

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Monday, January 7, 2008

Vulnerability paradox

In some disaster recovery research I've been reading recently, Rodney Runyan, in his article Small Business in the Face of Crisis, notes:

" With the technological advances societies have seen over the past century, we often feel that disasters can be safely predicted or controlled. But the paradox is that the safer our world becomes, the more vulnerable we are when a disaster actually happens."

This strikes true for New Orleans. The levee system reduced seasonal flooding and loss from storm surge during smaller hurricanes. However, when Katrina did hit, the loss was catastrophic. Much of the housing was built with little or no thought to flooding and was quickly destroyed by the water. Residential and commercial construction expanded into previous swamp land that had been uninhabitable before the levees. The Corps and FEMA furthered an unwarranted sense of safety by basing flood maps on rainfall and drainage, rather than on levee breach scenarios.

It seems obvious that people who regularly experience the inconveniences and losses from hurricanes, earthquakes, floods are more used to the experience. They may also have less to loose because they do not accumulate what can be easily destroyed by such events.

With technological strategies for disaster reduction in place, it is definitely more of an affront to our sense of safety when a unexpectedly large hazard does occur. We are less physically prepared when we don't regularly experience disasters. Nor are we able to as easily pass down disaster resilience knowledge or a sense of continued watchfulness from one generation to the next when the period between disasters is long.

But, on the other hand, technology has also done much to reduce losses (especially loss of life) from disasters....even if it also creates a false sense of complete safety. I certainly want the best in building codes, early warning systems, urban planning ... and yes, the occasional levee, even if I know that are only technological tools for disaster reduction, not the complete solution.

Perhaps it isn't that we are better or worse off with newer technologies, but that the pattern of losses, vulnerabilities and capacities shift. It is these shifts that we need to really pay attention to. Following a comment below by HonSanto, its not that we are overdeveloped, but that we may be dysfunctionally developed. It's an interesting paradox to ponder. Thoughts?

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