EPC Book Review: April 2019
Paradoxes and Perceptions: Four Essays on Disaster
By David Alexander (2013)
These four essays would make an excellent introduction to anyone starting a formal programme of study in this discipline. They should also be of interest to the thoughtful practitioner and the policy-writer. This is partly because there is a definite air of the manifesto about them. The writer lays out, with admirable brevity, the basic elements of an intellectual approach that should be got clear and correct - from the beginning of any serious thinking about disasters. The style and tone is very accessible and the arguments are clear. The four papers should take less than 2 hours to read, but (hopefully) a lot longer to reflect on. They will definitely reward that small investment of time.
The first essay is called There is Nothing More Practical than a Theoretical Approach to Disasters. The argument is summed up in a paragraph so succinct as to be worth quoting in full:
“You will have heard people – especially people with a strongly practical turn of mind – dismiss something by saying “oh, that’s purely theoretical”, as if theory were a dispensable adjunct to what we see and do. It is not so. Theory is the means by which we make sense of complicated phenomena. It helps us to create a model of baffling reality; and models, if they are good, are elegant simplifications that help us to understand complexities and come to terms with them.” (p.7)
We all know there is an annoyingly persistent and false “two cultures” issue in disaster studies and management (“practitioners versus academics”, “realists versus researchers” – whatever one’s choice of labels). It should be attacked and this paper does the job very well. As an aside, the rather arch title “pracademic” is actually a symptom of the problem, not a means of bridging a gap. If you think about in the right way (and this essay is totally convincing) it becomes apparent that this gap only exists as a mistaken belief. Or perhaps as a conceit?
A key theme of the second essay is the myths prevalent in general thinking about disasters, including the commonness of panic and the capacity of people to become anxious about risks - when given more information than some would say is good for them. The second is particularly important because it drives (and appears to validate) the reluctance to share risk information with the public. It also supports the (usually unchallenged and sometimes bureaucratically unchallengeable) preference of some agencies for an exaggerated level of secrecy. In the writer’s words:
“In reality, people tend to react more rationally if they have realistic information: they are, if anything, more likely to panic without it.”(p. 17)
“…secrecy is highly convenient. Hence, the notions that “people will panic” or “terrorists will profit” are great excuses for secrecy – but not for any rational response to hazards and threats.”(p. 19)
In the UK we are far from a proper understanding of these issues, and won’t get any closer until we have a proper professional debate about them. In that respect, this paper should be required reading.
The third essay has some very interesting (and lateral) thoughts about how we capture and classify information about risk and disasters, in the full-time glare of modern communications and data technology. A central theme of the final essay is the distinction between civil defence and civil protection. This isn’t as abstract or purely historical as you might think: it explains the evolution of locally-led, bottom-up multi-agency emergency management as we think we know it in the UK. The essay also dips into the concept of resilience, and makes a thought-provoking comparison of the Lisbon earthquake (1755) and the 9/11 attacks. Try it! The comparison works on several levels, including the collapse of tall buildings characterised by what the author playfully calls their “repetitive fenestration”.