Monday, July 9, 2018

Challenging disaster myths and destructive narratives

This is an English language version of an article published in Tia Sang magazine (in Vietnamese) on 09/07/2018 by Jason von Meding - original here

In the Vietnamese language, when we talk about a “disaster” we generally refer to it as a “natural disaster”. But there is an important distinction between the two. A failure to differentiate leaves us discussing people’s loss, pain and suffering in a certain way. Often, we think of it as a result of the “wrath of Mother nature”. Perhaps we even call it “the will of God”.  

When we focus on the “natural” we often neglect to discuss the social, economic and political parts of disasters.

My work investigating the root causes of disasters has led me to argue that they are actually quite unnatural. They are the result of human decisions about risk in society, about consumption, about rights and about ownership.

Sadly, disasters are inevitable in a world of increasing inequality.

Disasters aren’t natural
It is not a new concept to say that disasters are not natural. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first person on record to make this observation in 1756, after an earthquake and tsunami devastated Lisbon, Portugal. He argued that the casualties were due to the decisions and behaviours of people rather than nature.

Over the next 200 years, disasters were nevertheless discussed as natural or as acts of God. In the 1970s, scientists in various fields began to challenge this orthodox narrative. Since then, there have been constant challenges to the dominant position, but the terminology has only become more entrenched. There are now hundreds of thousands of references to “natural disaster” in the scientific literature.

So, what does make a disaster? Disasters often have natural triggers, and that is where we get this popular phrase “Natural disaster”. Hazards such as tsunamis, typhoons, bushfires and earthquakes do of course occur naturally. But disaster risk is determined by a combination of 2 things - 1) the hazard and 2) the vulnerability of the people in harm's way.

The truth is that around the world the victims of disasters are disproportionately impoverished, live in low-income countries and are marginalised in their society based on class, gender, religion, ethnicity and disability. And this is the way that societies are designed.

The most vulnerable suffer
Disaster impact is shaped by levels of human vulnerability. People are vulnerable for many reasons, but not because they choose to be. More often than not, someone else has made the decisions that determine their level of risk.

Injustice is built into our societies. In Vietnam we have only to look at how profoundly disasters impact on ethnic minorities. Flooding and landslides affect northwestern Vietnam periodically. In the past week, more than 20 people lost their lives, while in August 2017 dozens were killed.

These disasters cause severe hardship across provinces like Son La, Dien Bien, Yen Bai and Lai Chau. 80% of the population there belong to ethnic minorities. The poverty rate among ethnic minorities is unusually high in the region (73% - compared to a nationwide 2.9% for Kinh majority).

This is an example of how disaster risk is largely man-made. Ethnic minorities are often forgotten people in Vietnam. Attempts by the government to design policy measures to improve living standards often fail to recognise the diverse socio-economic development experience of ethnic minorities. Many ethnic minority communities have indeed benefited from development, but compared to the Kinh majority they have overwhelmingly been left behind.

Policy must therefore become more nuanced and targeted towards the specific socio-economic needs of each ethnic minority. Only then can the government start to address deficiencies in access to education, infrastructure, transportation, health care and other services. Inaction, or a simplistic and bureaucratic approach, has consequences. It is people that create disasters.

Every time a disaster occur, few people look into the role of poverty, marginalisation, environmental degradation or land use decisions in their analysis. This needs to change.

The injustices that people face define their day to day living conditions. This is how they end up living with a high level of risk. If we really want to understand the root causes of disaster, our starting point needs to be this - political, social and economic disadvantage.

These conditions are imposed on the vulnerable. It’s as simple as that. And this is where calling disasters “Natural” can be so dishonest and misleading.

Myths about disaster are commonplace
The “natural disaster” issue is not the only problem that we are facing in terms of how the public understands disasters. Society is shaped by certain prevailing narratives that are so often misleading.

Myths are widely accepted as truth. Here is a prime example. Around the world it is widely held that people behave negatively in crisis; selfishly, without compassion, irrationally and in panic. However, this simply does not fit with the available evidence. Disaster sociologists have been telling us for decades that we always see the best of human behaviour in such times. The reality is that communities come together in a disaster.

In the midst of trauma, we see the best of human "nature". People demonstrate solidarity. They give generously. They serve each other. They sacrifice not only for their family and friends, but for complete strangers. After a disaster there is a decline in crime. Victims do not loot, rape and murder. They come together.

Neighbours become first responders - something almost never picked up by the media as their stories follow international rescue teams. Communities organise and mobilise and utilise their incredible capacity to protect and assist and serve.

Sometimes when the authorities and so-called “experts” finally arrive, they actually disrupt a recovery process that is already well advanced. They often fail to recognise the importance of local capacity.

Importance of language
The words that we use are important. If a disaster is “natural” then nobody is accountable. We don’t have to think about uncomfortable root causes. Explaining disasters away as “natural” can actually prevent action to address the real root social, political and economic root causes.

In Vietnam, who benefits from this language? Which powerful interests would be unhappy if we were to speak more about the root causes of disaster rather than “nature”? Vietnam’s rapid development is not benefiting everyone equally. Inequality is growing, causing fractures in society, while the ecological impacts of rapid growth are profound. Disasters are often preceded by poor development decision-making.

One way to keep decision-makers accountable is to question the dominant narrative and language. Every time that we talk about any disaster we should be talking about vulnerability and injustice and rights. This rarely happens when we use the language of “natural disasters”.

Of course, there is always opposition to any suggestion to change the status quo. But in my experience, the opposition to abandoning the falsehood of “natural disaster” comes from those in positions of power and privilege. Some (for example academics and journalists) derive benefit from maintaining the language, because it is central to their vocabulary and they claim that it is all that the public understand. Others (for example politicians), because they might be challenged by any discussion of disaster root causes.

Although the public also commonly use this language, they are not invested in it. Most people are actually quite interested to discuss why disasters are not natural and they understand quickly.

Role of science communication and the media
So why are we so misinformed about disasters? The language is important, but it is only one factor. The media are also out for sensational stories and headlines. Disasters rarely make the news unless there is a large death toll. Rich countries are prioritised over poor ones. Consider the relative coverage of the impact of the Atlantic hurricane season on the United States to the 2017 monsoon impacts across South-Asia. Most of the media focused on the U.S.

Hollywood depicts a rescuer/victim dynamic in disaster narratives and focuses on the need to maintain law and order. Think of any disaster movie that you have watched. The people affected are panicking, selfish, irrational, helpless. This couldn’t be further from reality - but it serves a purpose to sell such a story.

Those in power have a lot to gain from perpetuating these myths. If the wider public believes that communities affected by disaster are behaving antisocially, they will not complain when force is used to “keep the law”. In the U.S. in particular, there is a history of authority-led violence after disasters. There is panic after disasters - but it comes from those afraid to lose power and control, rather than from affected communities.

Ultimately, what disaster science tells us just doesn’t square with the way that disasters are portrayed in the media or by Hollywood. Policy-makers know this and are not concerned. Therefore the rest of us must demand better.

So the next time you hear someone say “natural disaster”, inquire as to what the real cause of the disaster might be. If you see it in writing, challenge the author. We can all be a part of something positive here and shift the public discourse.

Most important of all, we need to be having the right conversation; one that is about root causes and shakes the halls of power.