Creating Disasters

I have been studying disasters for over 13 years, ever since I decided to research the JL123 plane crash. This has involved reading a lot of academic and practitioner works on disasters (and related subjects). Out of all the ones that I have read, other than finding it interesting that there is no single agreed definition of what a disaster is, the one that has perhaps had the greatest influence on the way I have looked at the issues is Disasters by Design by Dennis Mileti.

The starting point to understanding disasters is to realise that there is nothing inherently disastrous about a trigger itself. Although there is a tendency to separate disasters into ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’ (or other terms) – almost all disasters are ‘man-made’. An earthquake is not a disaster, for example. The disaster is the impact that the earthquake has on society.

Mileti’s argument is that there is something within the culture/organisation/behaviour of a society that ends up ‘designing’ the way a disaster happens. Although Mileti’s focus was on the USA, I think it can equally be applied to Japan – as I have discussed in my books Dealing with Disaster in Japan and Japan: The Basics. I have also explored the degree to which the concept play out in movies and other dramatizations relating to disasters in Japan and English-speaking countries – the article about this ‘Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?‘ will be published in 2020.

But I would also like to stress that I don’t believe that Mileti’s concept need be national. Whether it’s the USA, as Mileti has studied, or Japan, as I have studied, or elsewhere, there can be (and are) variations across the society. People and organisations (or societies, using a less national focussed view of the concept) are different and we don’t see homogeneous behaviour across all such groups/societies within national boundaries. So, within any one country, one may find ‘societies’ which can handle events better than others. In other words, from the same trigger point, some may have a disaster and others may not (naturally, how governments respond are likely to have the widest impact and are likely to influence the degree to which an event as a whole is seen as a disaster or not). Even within one organisation/company variations may be found.

What is important is for training to be given to everyone to help them understand how to approach events and respond to them – but also to recognise that being prepared is a key component. This is not a matter of sitting down and trying to work out how to respond to every earthquake, missile attack, terrorist attack, virus – it’s a matter of seeing the commonality of many trigger points and designing systems and processes to handle this. If the global pandemic of COVID-19 is going to teach us anything, it should be that there have been many successes and failures across societies (national and otherwise) and that there were many steps that could have been taken to respond better or to avoid there ever having been a ‘disaster’ at all. Some of this would have been difficult due to the inherent culture of those societies. Changing culture(s) is a challenge, but can be done.

I would strongly recommend reading Disasters by Design, which the author has recently made fully and freely available on the Research Gate website.

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