Its said that last year was exceptional. But was it?
Consider 2011: in the last 90 days, Myanmar, Thailand, Japan, New Zealand, Madagascar, Mexico, Australia, Malaysia, Tonga, Bolivia, Southern Africa, Vanuatu and Bangladesh have been affected by major natural disasters – assessed in the number of people affected and the economic loss suffered. The full extent of Japan’s mega-disaster is still unfolding.
For the first time in human history, our societies are manufacturing disaster risk faster than we’re mitigating it. How? From decades of making unplanned, unregulated decisions about where we live, what kind of settlements we live in and how well prepared we are to deal with the uncertainties of our environments.
In the past, societies understood and explained uncertainties in their environment by sharing stories of creation, preservation and destruction. The stories took varied forms in superstition, folklore, myths and legends - the namazu giant catfish that cause earthquakes, the moken sea gypsies that warn of tsunami waves. These myths gave meaning to the universe and some practical instruction on how people should relate to its possible hazards.
Today, we may tell different stories, about a fast-changing climate and a rapidly degrading environment, but we are shockingly less aware of the uncertainties of our environment than previous generations were.
Few of us can list the different kinds of natural hazards we are exposed to around where we live and what we can do to keep safe. Even fewer consider the implications of what happens if a new nuclear plant or city bridge is not built to withstand an extreme earthquake or what the catastrophic potential of a failed levee or dam burst some miles away from our home could be.
Why do we now feel less responsible for the safety of our family and community than we did some generations ago?
One answer lies in the fact that understanding and explaining uncertainties in our environment has become highly specialized. Unless I have studied actuarial science, or have a degree in disaster management, I don’t feel ‘trained’ to think about my risk or to do something about it. As a result, we have little public conversation to know risk and explain it through a commonly accessible world-view, as we did in the past. My safety has become someone else’s business, not mine.