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, Zürich, 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.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Institute of Civil Protection and Emergency Management

What is the difference between a professional society and a learned society? On the face of it, the answer is simple: a professional society is an association of people in a profession who wish to work together in some form, and to have a common identity and voice and to promote their profession. A learned society is a custodian of knowledge that acts on behalf of those members of a profession that are members of it. It immediately becomes clear that these definitions are inadequate and improving them is likely to cause the definitions to converge. Yet although some learned societies are professional associations, and some professional societies act as if they were learned societies, there is a difference.

Let us consider some examples. The UK's Royal Geographical Society (RGS) is a quintessential learned society. It exists to promote geography in all relevant guises and places. In the 1970s, the RGS worked alongside the Institute of British Geographers (IBG), which had been founded by university academics to promote interaction among those who teach and research geography (although school teaching was the preserve of another professional association, the Geographical Association). At a certain point, the RGS merged with the IBG. This did not preclude non-academics from becoming members and fellows of the resulting organisation (named the "RGS with the IBG") but it strengthened both as a result of joining forces. Both organisations retained their own journals, which had acquired different characters (nevertheless, it is hard to say that the IBG journals are more 'academic' than the RGS's flagship Geographical Journal).

The Geological Society of London (GSL) began in 1807 as a fairly loose association of gentleman-enthusiasts for geology. It grew into a major authority on geological matters and in 1991 absorbed the Institution of Geologists, which was the apposite professional association. The GSL provides the chartered geologist route to accreditation. Organisations such as the British Psychological Society (with 60,000 members) provide a focal point for knowledge, influence and identity in the given field and thus acts more as a professional association.

From this we can see that these organisations seldom seem to want to maintain a distinction between learned society and professional association. A strong mission to further their discipline or profession means that they will offer any services they think are appropriate and in demand by their membership.

The Institute of Civil Protection and Emergency Management (ICPEM) was born in 1938 as the Institute of Civil Defence. This is a field that, in its modern form, was effectively born in 1937, the year before ICD was founded, when the first concerted aerial bombardment of the modern era occurred in Guernica, northern Spain, and there were semi-improvised efforts to protect the non-combatant population. In point of fact, the idea of absorbing non-combatants into safe zones had gained traction in the 1930s, but it did not produce a civil defence body until 1958, when the International Civil Defence Organisation was founded in Geneva. ICD was effectively an association for the nascent profession of civil defence operative. Yet when it later became the Institute of Civil Defence and Disaster Studies (ICDDS) it adopted as its motto "excellence in disaster research" - the badge of a learned society. In 2009 ICDDS became ICPEM, but it retained the motto.

What should a learned society do to distinguish itself from a professional association? Perhaps before answering that one should ask, why would it want to distinguish itself in that way? The premier learned association is the Royal Society [of London for Improving Natural Knowledge - to give it its full title], which was founded in 1660. There is no doubt that the Royal Society is more prestigious and therefore carries more weight than other bodies that unite scientists, academics or people from the professions. Hence, there may be something of a desire to emulate it. Other than that, there is little in the way of a reason. A learned society must care for knowledge, a professional society for people, but there is no reason why it should not also be the other way around. Societies that are keen to thrive and grow are usually also keen to cover as many bases as possible within their fields, and to provide as comprehensive a set of services as possible.

As a learned society, ICPEM can trade on the fact that it is the oldest such body in this field in the world, older than, for example, the International Civil Defence Organisation. It has a more modern name, one that is entirely appropriate to today's emphasis on grass-roots emergency planning and management, and collaboration rather than authoritarian chains of command. The best way that ICPEM can fulfill its mission is to provide fellowship (in the broadest sense of the term) for those people whose professional or academic interest is civil protection or emergency management, and help to preserve, share and encourage the knowledge that they need to acquire or can offer. The best benefit from being part of ICPEM is to be part of a common process in which knowledge in its many forms is generated, developed and shared.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Publish, Perish and be Damned

A journal that is good enough to eat - Launching the IJDRR with a Swiss chocolate version.

We live in an age in which there are many inverse relationships between quantity and quality. One of these is in academic publishing. The journal I edit and helped found (the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction) rejects about 70 per cent of papers submitted to it. Last year (2016) there were 750 submissions. In 2017 it is estimated that at least 1,040 papers will be submitted. Perhaps 700 of them will not appear in print because they are not of an acceptable quality.

I have been a major journal editor continuously since April 1985. I long ago concluded that at least three fifths of academic publishing is motivated by personnel considerations. Scholars publish in order to get a job, retain a job or obtain promotion. Relatively few are lucky enough to be able to publish for the sheer fun of it, or for reasons of pure creativity.

When I started as an editor, the motivation for publishing rested largely with the author. Now it is almost exclusively a function of institutional impetus. Researchers publish because they are forced to: it is a requirement of their employment. In many cases, the requirement is tied to the usual absurd bibliometric parameters such as impact factors, 'upper quartiles' and so on. The least important consideration seems to be what is actually in the articles - i.e. the scholarly content.

Academics may be taught to carry out research, but they are not taught to publish, or at least not properly taught. It is amazing how little authors seem to understand about the process of seeing their work into print (digital print, as things now are). The great "advantage" of digital publishing is that with very small increases in costs one can now have colossal amounts of uninteresting, uninnovative research at one's fingertips, with search engines and portals that make it a piece of cake to ignore all this work.

In much academic writing there is a great lack of professionalism. Very many authors submit articles for peer review with badly constructed, appallingly written abstracts, clamorous grammatical errors in the title, and so on. Then they wonder why no one wants to do the peer reviewing! Most authors ignore a journal's style requirements and in formatting terms few produce well-constructed manuscripts. I suppose an author might ask why this matters, given that the message and the content of the article are the real matters at hand. Well it does matter. Editors and referees cannot entirely free themselves from forming opinions based on the appearance of an article.

A good article is carefully laid out, double spaced, with page numbers and non-intrusive line numbers. The references are properly cited and listed, and care is taken to make sure that they are complete and in the proper format. Tables are well laid out, figures are fully legible, and the language in which the article is written is good enough for an international audience. This means that it is free from slang, syntactical contortions and grammatical errors (see below).

Sending in a well-formatted article (or book manuscript, indeed) betokens a sensitivity to the needs of the reader. Yet we who habitually read academic manuscripts have to cope with all sorts of horror. One of those that upsets me the most is the manuscript that, thanks to advanced word-processing capabilities, is formatted as a facsimile of a published manuscript, complete with the journal's masthead banner and two-column pages. Evidently the author thinks that this will increase the paper's chances of being accepted. Not on your life! If it is eventually accepted, I feel pity for the copy editor and typesetter who have to unravel all the formatting so that they can start again with publishers' software.

The other common problem, and increasingly so, is that in disaster risk reduction, too many manuscripts are being submitted for publication by people who do not have enough background and learning in this field. One only has to read the first quarter or third of the paper to find this out, when it becomes apparent that (a) the authors have not considered the principal literature on the topic they are writing about, (b) they are unaware that much of their study has been done before, in some cases decades ago, and (c) the literature review, which should be the basis of or starting point for their analysis, is nothing of the sort. It all contributes to the tendency to "reinvent the wheel" which is such an 'industrial disease' of disaster studies.

Writing is a process of communicating. Like all communication, it is useless to talk to an interlocutor in a language that he or she does not understand. Comparatively few academic authors seem to think about the effects of communication from the point of view of the reader, listener or viewer. It is not a one-way, one-sided process.

Put together, all of this adds up to a 'per capita inspiration gap' - more to read, but less to learn from it. Let us do what we can to reverse the trend, bring back the creativity, instil the professionalism, and stick two fingers up at the institutional requirements that have done so much to "dull down" science.


Typical errors that occur, and recur, in academic papers written in English (or a species of English) are the following. All of these are avoidable defects.
  • absence of articles where they are required
  • errors of common English usage
  • awkward, unbalanced and contorted syntax
  • indiscriminate use of slang
  • clash of tenses
  • misuse of tenses
  • failure to use the possessive case when it is needed
  • misuse of capitalisation (common and proper nouns)
  • clash of singular and plural in the same sentence
  • failure to  recognise collective nouns
  • use of past imperfect where the past definite tense is needed
  • lop-sided clauses
  • failure to observe standard conventions
  • missing hyphens in compound adjectives
  • misuse of the present participle
  • wrong wording to introduce lists
  • wrong choice of words
  • synthetic words with no real meaning
  • misuse of the possessive case
  • misuse of idiom.

Monday, 27 March 2017

On the Human Dimension of Disasters

Disasters open an extraordinarily revealing window on the workings of society. Through the disruption and the exigencies that they create, they expose, as it were, the "soft underbelly" of the social organism. With this in mind, I will now offer some reflections on the 'human condition' as seen through the lens of a student of disasters, crises and major incidents.
Each of us has a special skill to bring to disaster risk reduction, but experience of crises and emergencies suggests--proclaims, even--that our interventions should be made with careful attention to the context of our work, as well as that of the events themselves (Hewitt 2013). Disasters are multi-faceted phenomena and the threats and impacts that they create require multi-disciplinary responses (Kruchten et al. 2008). Such is the growing complexity of society that before long virtually all disasters and major incidents of a certain size will be cascading events, which cannot be understood in monodisciplinary terms (Pescaroli and Alexander 2015).

One effect of disciplinary specialisation has been a tendency to shy away from the bigger picture, which includes underlying risk drivers that represent the fundamental causes of disaster. These lie in the domains of poverty, marginalisation, the incidence and prevalence of disease (and in some countries malnutrition), conflict, displacement, and, increasingly, climate change adaptation. So powerful are the forces that create vulnerability, and so persistent is the problem of disasters, that some analysts have begun to urge us to study disaster risk creation, not disaster risk reduction (Oliver-Smith et al. 2016). And so begins the search for reality in its stripped-down form.

As an initial question, to what extent should policies and decisions be based on evidence? The current fashion for "evidence-based practice" began in medicine (Sackett et al. 2000). If a particular surgical operation was accomplished with a consistently low level of success, there would presumably be evidence in the operating theatre of what was going wrong, which would explain why practices should be changed. Ostensibly, it is a good idea to base decisions on the evidence of what actually happens when implementation takes place. Evidence can be precise and decisive, and thus able to support good decision making. However, it can also be equivocal, ambiguous, puzzling or uninterpretable--evidence of what? Moreover, it can be ignored, distorted or used selectively so that the picture of what is going on produces radically different interpretations depending on which evidence is selected (Lau et al. 2006).

For some key issues, we have very little evidence. For example, the role of perception and self-protective behaviour in saving people's lives when buildings collapsed in earthquake disasters is very poorly understood (Goltz and Bourque 2017). Although in earthquake injury epidemiology we have more than 40 years of concerted studies, the evidence is fragmentary and does not add up to useful empirical generalisations on which with confidence and security we can base policy. In migration studies, evidence is used in a highly selective manner. For example, in the Western world migration policy tends to assume that immigrants are a drain on the health and welfare services and national economies, and that they take jobs from indigenous workers. The evidence tends to support the opposite conclusion (Dustmann and Frattini 2014), but this does not affect policy when it is based on political considerations rather than cold socio-economic logic. This consideration is important to disaster specialists, as there is a substantial risk that a human mobility crisis will overlay with another form of disaster and create a compound event of extraordinary reach and intensity (Pigeon 2017).

In recent years there has been an increasing divergence between policy and reality, if the latter can be represented by something in the moral, ethical and legal domain. We live in the age of mass cognitive dissonance (Metzger et al. 2016). On the one hand there are xenophobia, the distrust of unfamiliar people, rejectionism, the sense that it is not our problem, and distancing, or "not in my back yard". On the other hand there is compassion, the desire to help the needy, and charity, a willingness to donate. Seldom has the human race been at such a crossroads!

This points to a major lesson to be learned. None of us will be able fully to understand the problem of disasters, let alone solve it, until we start to be realistic about the world in which we live. As the work of Naomi Klein and Anthony Loewenstein has shown us, in the field of 'disaster capitalism', disasters consolidate power structures, augment profits, redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich, allow the introduction of conveniently repressive measures and permit gratuitous social engineering, including that which is achieved by forced migration (Klein 2008, Loewenstein 2015). Put simply, disasters are a vehicle for economic, social and political opportunism. Klein and Loewenstein argue that this is because the dominant forces treat the economic and physiological enfeeblement that disasters cause to affected populations as an opportunity for exploitation. In a world in which half of all trade (and US$7.6 trillion), is funnelled through 87 tax havens and eight men control as much wealth as 3.6 billion other citizens, inequality and resource hoarding are a major influence on disaster potential in all countries without exception (Oxam 2017).

Despite the imperatives, sadly policy makers at all levels of government, commerce and industry are generally uninterested in disaster risk reduction. Politically, it has the 'negative kudos' of the "no votes in sewage" syndrome, i.e. that a politician will not be elected for promising to build a new waste-water treatment plant. As a consequence of this, and the predominance of other political considerations, decisions are seldom made on the basis of evidence and research.

One by-product is that throughout the world corruption is one of the principal causes of disaster. This can be seen in the erosion of planning laws (and the lack of adherence to them) in floodable parts of London, England. It can be seen in the nuclear release at Fukushima Dai'ichi, Japan, and it can be seen in the mass collapse of relatively new buildings during earthquakes in countries such as Turkey and Pakistan. Indeed, studies have shown that, at the national level in seismically active countries, the gravity of earthquake disasters correlates most strongly with weak governance and corruption in planning, construction and building code enforcement (Escaleras et al. 2007, Ambraseys and Bilham 2011). The greatest difficulty with this thesis is how to measure corruption, which is often dangerous to study, is often pervasive, is always occult and does not necessarily involved the transgression of laws. However, as vulnerability is the root of disaster, corruption adds to it--immeasurably, in both senses of the word.

Much of world policy on disaster risk reduction is national and international in genesis and is therefore "top down". Field studies suggest that it does not easily reach the local level. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction has endeavoured to counteract this by organising the 'Safe Cities' initiative, with principles and guidelines for reducing disaster risk at the local level (UNISDR 2013). A thousand towns and cities have joined the initiative, but as there are more than a million urban settlements above the village level, only about 0.1% of the world's cities are involved.

Despite this, theorists, and many practitioners, believe that local-level activism is possible and the community is the best vehicle for measures to reduce disaster risk and impact (Berkes and Ross 2013). That is fine, but it ushers in some thorny problems. One is that there is no innate geographical scale at which to define the concept of 'community'. Is a community a street, a neighbourhood, a city, a world-wide group of like-minded individuals, or what? Secondly, communities are often neither homogeneous nor harmonious. Rivalry and rancour abound in them. Thirdly, identification with the community is a highly variable phenomenon. As sociologists discovered nearly 40 years ago, disasters can produce subcultures, represented by very heterogeneous groups of people who have a common agenda, and subcultures can produce emergent groups, such as survivors' networks and pressure groups (Wenger and Weller 1973). However, these are not always therapeutic phenomena and not always graced with longevity.

Fourthly, power structures are evident in the make-up of communities, which tend to be dominated by the interests of their most powerful members or overlords. One consequence of this is 'elite capture', in which the popular agenda is captured by the dominant interests (Kundu 2011). It is as likely to be encountered in the Thames basin of outer London as it is in the villages of Bangladesh. Another consequence is marginalisation, in which groups of people are deprived of the economic, political and social power needed to achieve self-determination. Marginalisation has been found to be strongly correlated with vulnerability to disaster, as has the poverty that accompanies it (Wisner and Luce 1993). Again, these are features of all societies, rich and poor.

In a just society, imbalances of opportunity would be counteracted by welfare, a term that, curiously, all and sundry seem to shy away from defining. It is clearly too much of a political hot potato, but here is my own definition: "The provision of care to a minimum acceptable standard to people who are unable adequately to look after themselves." In disaster, welfare assumes paramount importance, but it is easily subverted by politics and opportunism. We therefore need to look carefully at what welfare is not, as much as at what it is. What is legitimate care and support, and what is a debilitating source of aid-dependency or a political sweetener in exchange for votes?

The dismal picture of dark forces and negative changes that I have drawn is the result of a pervasive tendency not to tackle the root causes of disaster. Perhaps we lack the means, but there is also a reluctance to look reality in the face, and that leads to a further tendency to underestimate the power of disaster and to misinterpret its causes. In 1983 a book entitled Interpretations of Calamity appeared, edited by the Canadian-British geographer Kenneth Hewitt (Hewitt 1983). The authors of this volume promoted what has come to be known as the 'radical critique', which argues that vulnerability is the key to disaster, while hazard, or threat, is merely the trigger of events. Paradoxically, since the mid-1980s, we have seen the massive growth of hazard studies and only a modest increase in vulnerability studies. The money is in seismology, volcanology, and the 'technofix' solution to everything from storms to terrorism. In the meantime, vulnerability continues to grow, proliferate and send its insidious feelers into many aspects of life.

Does the explanation for such paradoxes lie in culture, perhaps? As scientists we are taught that there is only one reality and science can somehow "nail it down". Other interpretations are fallacious and to be despised. However, 37 years spent studying disasters have convinced me that there are many realities, and they stem from remarkably different interpretations of what constitutes rationality. If, as happened in June 2015, a Malaysian cabinet minister states publicly that an earthquake occurred because tourists took their clothes off on a sacred mountain, we may chortle and dismiss the assertion, but it nevertheless influences people's perceptions and thus has a concrete effect.

We have long known that the enigma of people's attitudes to disaster, and actions in the face of disaster risk, are a function of human cultures. Anthropologists have been quick to claim the high ground here, and they have conducted some notable field studies of disaster culture (Oliver-Smith 2004). However, in recent years there has been a renewed interest in trying to understand how culture influences other aspects of disaster and other fields by which disaster is interpreted.

Culture is remarkably hard to measure. It is something we are born with and develop as we mature. Many of the aspects of culture that are thus created are, to use the terminology of the linguist Kenneth Pike, 'emic', or culturally specific (i.e., not common to all cultures, or to many of them--Franklin 1996). In the modern age, cultural metamorphosis is driven largely by technological developments, which are decidedly 'etic', or culturally universal. This promotes fusion and the constant reinterpretation of cultural norms. By and large, emic elements of culture mutate less rapidly than etic ones do (Alexander 2000). They are the 'ballast' of culture. Cultural change can be achieved, but only by persistent application of effort and recognition that change will be slow and continuous, for cultures do not change overnight. In the meantime, projects that are culturally compatible are likely to succeed, while those that are not will fail, no matter how rational and laudable they are. A more unstable factor is represented by risk perception. Forces are constantly at work that both create risk and abate it. Which of these wins, and how the balance is tipped, depends on the 'wild card' of risk perception. Note, however, that the 'wild card' is constrained by the cultural filter (or lens) by which we interpret the world at all levels from the individual to the international.

It is vital that the social sciences embrace cultural analysis. Cultural differences may explain, for example, why the sociological definition of panic is so different from that entertained by psychologists (Alexander 1995). In this sense, it is a matter of both how these constituencies interpret the meaning of culture, and how the cultures of sociology and psychology operate to constrain the interpretations. The picture is complicated by the fact that at the individual level, culture is like Chinese boxes or Russian dolls: it is a multiple phenomenon. No wonder it is hard to pin down in any scientific manner.

In conclusion, we live in a world of changing realities. Identity and sovereignty have remained relatively immutable for four hundred years, but they are now entering a period of radical change. Welfare, entitlement and human rights are essential elements of disaster risk reduction, but they are under extreme duress in a world in which equality is a receding goal.

Many of these ruminations have no apparent practical outcome, but the reader will ask what we can do as individuals and groups. The first thing is to search for the underpinnings of reality, read between the lines, strive to interpret events in more fundamental ways. Awareness is the lynch-pin of action. We must all advocate and strive for policies, practices and procedures that take account of the world as it really is. If we understand the fundamental drivers of disaster we can concentrate on reducing them, rather than merely prodding away at the symptoms.


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