When hurricane Katrina slammed into the US Gulf Coast in August of this year, she destroyed not only the lives and livelihoods of the people there, but the naiveté of the western industrial world. Natural disasters that flatten cities and displace a million people are not confined to Asia. Dangerously ineffective bureaucracies weakened by cronyism are not limited to certain countries in Africa or the former Soviet Union. Sustainability and security -- that is, the link between systemically sound, ethical management on the one hand, and basic human safety and protection from catastrophic events on the other -- is an issue everywhere.
Consider the similarities between the storm in New Orleans, and the recent record-breaking rains of Mumbai (formerly Bombay). In both cities, flooding crippled not only the city; it made immediate and unexpected dents in the entire national economy. Two examples: Mumbai is the nerve center for most of India's automated teller machines; for a time, these stopped working all over the country. New Orleans is the major shipping port for the agricultural exports of the US midwest; these are now backing up the Mississippi Rivers on barges and into warehouses. (For more on Mumbai, see Aromar Revi's excellent article, "Lessons from the Deluge," in India's Economic and Political Weekly, September 3, 2005.)
That both cities were points of unexpected economic vulnerability to their respective nations should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Both grew at points of extreme vulnerability precisely because they were so economically strategic. The fact that both nations were surprised by these and other "side effects" points to a lack of even basic systems thinking -- and systems thinking is essential to sustainability.
It is now common knowledge that New Orleans' levees were in the process of being raised and strengthened, to a level that would at least have reduced the damage, when federal budget cuts stopped the work in 2001. It turns out that a proposal to do even more comprehensive storm and flood protection, including the restoration of natural wetlands, had stalled politically in 1998. The 100-billion-plus estimates for cleaning and rebuilding the region -- a figure certain to be conservative -- makes the $14 billion dollar budget for that protection program now look reasonable indeed.
In neither case were these budget-based, political decisions not to prepare subject to anything like an adequate, systemic review of the economic and environmental costs of inaction. And in both cities, of course, it was the poor who suffered worst, and who bore the brunt of insufficient planning and preparedness in the face of a "risk" that was, in reality, just a matter of time.
One likely positive outcome: Witnessing the impact of unavoidable natural disasters for which we are unprepared should raise the profile of work to prevent avoidable, human-caused disasters -- and to reduce the impact of the natural bullets we can't dodge. Fortunately, a great deal of research is being done on both counts. It is not always gathered under the same conceptual roof, but the pieces are there to be assembled. A few examples:
In the area of environmental security, scientific modelers have been working for years to construct the computer-based tools that make scenario analysis -- "what ifs" -- both possible and credible. What happens to agriculture if climate change continues? What happens to our economy if the world's energy system gets disrupted? We need to take these "what if's" far more seriously, since "what if" is all-too-often a synonym for "what happens when." (Here is one eerily prescient example, a study of "Environmental Homeland Security" showing the effect of toxic release and flooding in Mobile, Alabama).
On the topic of peace and conflict resolution, we are gaining in understanding the links between people, resources, environmental degradation, and catastrophic conflict. Jared Diamond, in his recent bestseller Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, makes a compelling and chilling case for environmental degradation as an important contributing factor in the Rwandan genocide. On the more positive side, UN-level diplomats report success in environmental peacemaking -- moving peace negotiations forward in places like the Sudan and Somalia with the help of core principles for sustainability. (It's now even possible to get a Master's degree in "Environmental Security and Peace" from the United Nations University for Peace.)
Finally, the fast-growing, inter-disciplinary research field of resilience is increasing our understanding of how to understand ecological, economic, and social vulnerabilities in complex systems. How much of a shock can the system take? When would it reach a point of no return, as did New Orleans' levees, or Rwanda's social tensions? Resilience science is creating the tools to make such analyses possible -- and thus increase the chance of avoiding worst-case scenarios.
In the aftermath of Katrina and Mumbai, the greatest risk is that we will fail to learn their lessons -- lessons purchased at great human, natural, and economist cost. All too often, risks that were once dismissed as improbable, ignored as too controversial, or avoided as too costly to mitigate, miraculously shift category from "merely theoretical" to "unavoidable" in the aftermath of their actually happening.
Natural disasters are indeed unavoidable. But human disasters are not. In either case, inadequate human preparedness and response is a choice -- and an unacceptable one, for sustainability and security both.
(Originally published in the Fall 2005 issue of Radar, published by SustainAbility)
Natural disasters ARE unavoidable, but it is conceivable that societies can be built around their possibility. The polystyrene coated in concrete buildings recently tested for their maximised earthquake standing ability are an example of this. The confinement of development to the west has skewed safety management to personal liability situations. Say if you fall off a bus and it is the bus company's fault, for example. The increased frequency of disasters that is inevitable as global warming takes hold is going to have to evolve a different kind of safety aesthetic - where societies are built for worst case scenarios. Imagine what nano-technology could do if things are designed to react to such emergency situations, for example. It's going to need money but it's the only way forward.
On a related point - there has been a terrible earthquake in Pakistan/India. I was nearby earlier this year and if anyone reading this could see fit to donate something to the Red Cross or some other organistaion it would be most appreciated. I know it's been a terrible year, but we have to do our best and I haven't seen anything else here about it (or many places, in fact)!