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.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Disaster reduction and the sustainability challenge


Today I went to a lunch time discussion of sustainability. This concept promoted development with an equitable eye to the triple bottom line - financial, social, and ecological costs. We discussed the how it seemed relatively easier to discuss the connections between financial and ecological costs, than between social costs and other costs. Sustainable development often comes down to "green" designs that consider environmental impacts or critiques of the capitalist model of financing.


As I thought about sustainable development, or sustainable community management if you are a bit queasy with the feasibility of continuous expansion, I considered its corollaries in the field of disaster risk reduction. It struck me again that it is somewhat easier to focus on some components of the triple bottom line in relation to disasters.

The vulnerability approach to disasters has rightly brought into focus the fact that not all people are equally exposed to or impacted by disasters. Rather, it is often the poor or socially marginalized most at risk and least able to recover. This approach certainly brings into focus the social aspects of disasters.

The disaster trap theory, likewise, brings into focus the financial bottom line. This perspective is most often discussed in international development and disaster reduction circles. It argues that disasters destroy development gains and cause communities to de-develop unless both disaster reduction and development occur in tandem. Building a cheaper, non-earthquake resistant school in an earthquake zone, may make short-term financial sense. However,over the long term, this approach is likely to result in loss of physical infrastructure, human life, and learning opportunities when an earthquake does occur.

What seems least developed to me, though I would enjoy being rebutted, is the ecological bottom line of disasters. Perhaps it is an oxymoron to discuss the ecological costs of disasters, given that many disasters are triggered natural ecological processes like cyclones, forest fires, and floods. It might also be an oxymoron simply because a natural hazard disaster is really looking at an ecological event from an almost exclusively human perspective. Its not a disaster if it doesn't destroy human lives and human infrastructure. But, the lunch-time discussion made me wonder if there wasn't something of an ecological bottom line to disasters in there somewhere. Perhaps it is in the difference between an ecological process heavily or lightly impacted by human ecological modification. Is a forest fire in a heavily managed forest different from that in an unmanaged forest? Certainly logging can heighten the impacts of heavy rains by inducing landslides, resulting in a landscape heavily rather than lightly impacted by the rains. Similar processes might also be true in the case of heavily managed floodplains. Flooding is concentrated and increased in areas outside of levee systems. What does that mean for the ecology of these locations? Does a marsh manage just as well in low as high flooding? My guess would be no.

And of course, there is the big, looming disaster of climate change. This is a human-induced change that may prove quite disasterous to many an ecological system, everything from our pine forests here, to arctic wildlife, and tropical coral reefs.

Perhaps, we disaster researchers, need to also consider a triple bottom line when making arguments for the benefits of disaster risk reduction.

1 comment:

CJ said...

I think people underestimate the impacts of climate change on the ecological system. Even those that care for the environment and want to do something about their contribution to global warming. Often the rhetoric of action sounds good but is often times followed by inaction. For many, they have a hard time understanding the massive impacts of a warming climate on the environment as we know it today.
Humans respond to danger if they are directly threatened by it, but severe impacts to the environment - concerning yes - have not directly effected the majority of the people in the US yet. It's easily viewed and argued as an ecological crisis more so than a social and economic crisis. If climate change was presented as a threat to natural resources, community livelihood and economic stability it would be much more of a concern for those interested in their way of life - as they've come to know it.