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Dancing with Disaster

In the last 20 years the burden of risk shifted
to individuals, leaving us more vulnerable to calamities, finds a new book from USC’s Andrew Lakoff.

The last decade has been punctuated by a string of tragedies, from the attacks of September 2001 to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to this year’s earthquake in Haiti to this month’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the aftermath of each tragedy, the idea that disasters are acute, unpredictable events has helped galvanize media attention and resources. But this belief in the unpredictability of disaster may also make us more vulnerable, according to a new book edited by sociologist Andrew Lakoff of the USC College.

“If we assume that disasters are unforeseeable or unavoidable, it is hard to generate the political will to act in advance to avoid or to mitigate their effects,” says Lakoff, editor of Disaster and the Politics of Intervention (SSRC/Columbia University Press, 2010).

“We need to see the mitigation of vulnerability to future disaster as something we are responsible for in the present,” Lakoff says.

From the roots “dis-” and “astro,” the word “disaster” implies cosmic bad luck, the misalignment of the stars and the planets. If an event is seen as out of the control of its victims, then governmental and charitable relief can easily be justified.

But if these disasters are unforeseeable, who should bear the responsibility of avoiding them in the first place? What is the appropriate relationship between the state, non-governmental organizations and private security firms in responding to humanitarian emergencies?

“The lesson that comes from looking at different types of disasters is not a single policy prescription that will work across all of them, but a recognition of the importance of developing political interventions that are sustainable over the long term and that are achievable in the current political context,” Lakoff says.

Over the last century, governments have played an increasing role in response to disaster and management of collective risk, through public policies such as disaster relief, infrastructure development and environmental regulation, Lakoff notes.

However, “the increasing complexity and interdependence of technical systems, as well as risks deriving from modern technologies themselves, have outstripped the capacities of many of the risk management practices initially developed in the industrial era,” he adds.

The five essays in Disaster and the Politics of Intervention reveal how, over the last two decades, the burden of societal risk has shifted from the collective to the individual, increasing our vulnerability to disastrous events.

For example, Lakoff points to a federal emergency declared in fall of 2007. A series of wildfires swept through Southern California, in the very regions where voters and politicians had recently declined to fund improvements to the fire department or to implement zoning restrictions in areas with high fire risk.

In the wealthy northern suburbs of San Diego, overwhelmed local firefighters awaited assistance, while private firefighters employed by AIG protected specific properties belonging to those who had purchased private insurance at an average cost of $19,000 a year.

The essays in the book, which also cover the HIV/AIDS pandemic, climate change, and conflict in Darfur, show what these disparate disasters have in common, Lakoff notes.

In his introduction to Disaster and the Politics of Intervention, Lakoff calls for more resilient disaster management systems and practices that aren’t just confined to the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but also address preparation and long-term rehabilitation of disaster-stricken communities.

“On the one hand, there’s a tremendous amount of social science research that shows the poor and socially marginal are more vulnerable to disasters because of a lack of resources,” Lakoff says. “But on the other hand, everyone is potentially affected by disaster. Just look at the attacks of September 11 or the recent financial crisis.”

Disaster and the Politics of Intervention identifies deficits in existing structures of risk governance and proposes what Lakoff calls “political technologies” to help mitigate the risk of disaster — that is, regulatory mechanisms which aren’t only technical but also incorporate a political solution.

“We have a substantial body of knowledge about how social circumstances contribute to the risk of disaster, and we should use this knowledge in order to mitigate risk,” Lakoff says. “We need to envision and create protective measures in advance of the event itself.”

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