A New Grammar of Disaster

With the House Republicans once again blocking a bill to fund federal disaster relief measures in the US Congress, I was struck by the contradictions in the way in which disasters are being framed in public life.   These contradictions, I would argue, are not unique to the US, but represent a kind of existential paradox that is affecting publics throughout the wealthy industrialized world. The paradox is this: disasters represent exceptional circumstances where government must act positively to protect security and property; on the other hand, governments must not be allowed to  establish new institutional authority to prevent future disasters, mitigate their potential effects, or recover over long periods of time.  Disaster capabilities are needed, it seems, but these must be temporary, ad-hoc, circumstantial, and limited in space and time.

2011 is proving to be one of the most expensive years for disasters ever, with the frequency of disasters reaching an unprecedented level.  Extreme drought, heat, flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes have cost the US an estimated $35 billion, according to the American Red Cross.   The costs of disasters are not limited by government budgets, and so the commitment to recovery cannot be arbitrarily limited.  This feature of disasters means that considering them ‘exceptional’ is misplaced.  Disasters, especially in an era of extreme weather caused by climate change, are not exceptional, but  transformational.  They cause permanent changes to human settlement patterns, economic growth patterns, infrastructure, social and cultural trends, and natural resources.  The idea that governments must not also change to address them means that governments will be increasingly marginalized in society’s responses to disasters.  This is not a welcome development, since it is only governments that have the collective will, concentration of resources, and legitimacy to marshal social efforts to solve large-scale problems.

Naomi Klein argued in The Shock Doctrine in 2007 that disasters provide opportunities for rollbacks of public institutions and privatization of the economy according to free-market forces. However, the idea that disasters provide opportunities just waiting for private companies to exploit just doesn’t seem to fit the experience since the economic collapse of 2008.  As the costs of disasters rack up, companies are either too strapped for cash to invest, or spooked by the possibility of further uninsured losses.  Where are the millions for New Orleans after Katrina?

Thomas Homer-Dixon argued in his book The Upside of Down in 2006 that disasters (if they are not too severe) provide opportunities for renewal and regrowth, and can be leveraged toward deeper forms of social change, at least partly through the formation of new institutions of readiness and new societal efforts focused on adaptation.  However, it seems as well that disasters must be framed in ways that make them significant instances for governmental action, not as exceptional and limited circumstances that can be overcome with ad-hoc efforts.

Just as disasters are becoming significant social movers, governments have vacated the field.  Putting aside the irony of the right’s effort to offset disaster relief spending with cuts to renewable energy programs that might mitigate future disaster costs, the broader question of how to frame disasters has been sidestepped.   Putting disasters in brackets, and assuming that they are temporary and exceptional circumstances that will go away in due course, guarantees that their cost, both human and economic, will continue to escalate.