I’ve studied and taught disaster for a long time; perhaps this is why, today, I see disaster everywhere, with disaster understood as much a matter of thought and articulation as flesh and concrete. In these terms, there is disaster when there is no prescribed way to respond, when the world outruns our capacity to make sense of it, when we are in a desperately reactive mode. In these terms, disaster can be chronic as well as acute. Asthmatic, or delivered by a toxic cloud that kills on contact. And most always multiple, involving entwined systems –social, ecological, technological, cultural, economic – charged by context. The simultaneity of tsunami and war disaster in Sri Lanka (as written about by Vivian Choi) is illustrative, as is the simultaneity of earthquake, tsunami, nuclear, and political disaster in Japan since March 2011.
Anne Allison’s forthcoming book Precarious Japan promises to help us understand how, since around 1991, many Japanese have experienced profound insecurity -- partly because of economic collapse and the loss of the employment security, but also because of other shifts and threats that are difficult to make sense of within established ways of thinking, talking and living. Japanese worlds have become difficult to grapple with. This, too, as I see it, is disaster. Established structures – political, technological, cultural, and economic -- aren’t adequate to the realities at hand. New modes of thought, articulation and sociality are needed; basic infrastructure needs to be reconceived and re-built. Such an expansive sense of disaster risks playing into what can be excessive state control in what has been deemed an emergency; disaster calls for surveillance, policing, and new rules; without these, there would be failures of responsibility; yet surveillance, policing and new rules can easily limit capacity to respond, capacity to recognize new conditions and a need for new of modes of governance appropriate to those conditions. The kind of boomerang effect that Vivian Choi has observed in Sri Lanka is illustrative. Treating both natural disaster and terrorism as inevitable and requiring sustained vigilance has resulted in increased, morally justified militarism in Sri Lanka – leading to a “palpable lack of social and political change," and the brutal paradox of a “violent peace.”
But treating disaster as exceptional also has risks – contributing to gross failures of expectation and tragic lack of preparedness, undermining recollection of social and cultural forms that could be used to reduce vulnerability, foster recovery and figure out different futures. Having watched disaster for years, mindful of the vested interests undergirding what we see and expect, and don’t, I cringe when I hear disaster spoken about as “unexpected events.” There is ignorance of history and structural conditions in such articulation, it seems to me. These words themselves are risky.
A reviewer of John Casti’s book X-Events: The Collapse of Everything makes a good point. Casti, a Santa Fe Institute-affiliated complexity theorist, describes an array of potentially catastrophic system failures: “black swans” that would bring the world down: a worldwide crash of the Internet; the end of oil; nuclear winter; pandemic viruses; etc. It is frightening, but also paralyzing (and, for some reviewers, “boring”). Reviewer Will Byrnes isn’t entirely convinced, pointing readers to Casti’s description of the problem of potable water supply. Casti writes that
“Overpumping of underground water aquifers in many countries, including China, India, and the United States, had artificially inflated food production in the past few decades. For example, Saudi Arabia was self-sufficient in wheat harvesting for over twenty years. Now the wheat harvest there is likely to disappear entirely over the next couple of years due to a lack of underground water to irrigate crops.”
Unexpected? “Really?” Brynes asks. “These guys did not see this coming? Helluh-oh, deh-sert. What were you thinking? This is not a matter of complexity but of world-class arrogance and stupidity.“ Byrnes also points readers to Casti’s analysis of the global financial system, and the problem of national indebtedness, saying that this, too, could result in unexpected, system failures. Byrnes points out that Casti
“manages not to mention, in the case of the USA, that our national treasure has been systematically looted since 1980 by the monied class as they reduce their own taxes, while indulging in military spending in an unprecedented, and generationally long spree on technology and questionable wars. This is not complexity. This is corruption on a massive scale, classic class warfare, in which only one side is armed. I guess that makes it more like class slaughter. The changes in class distribution of wealth in the USA will happily support the contention. Nothing complex about that.”
Idioms of complexity (which I generally like and depend on) produce discursive risks that responsibility for disaster will be deflected. So, too, can complacency and arrogance.
Picture, for example, the environmental impact statements prepared for deep water offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico – by British Petroleum, Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, ConocoPhillips and Shell. All look almost exactly the same, though their covers are different colors. Writing in the Huffington Post, Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) reported that “the content is ninety percent identical.” Along with BP, three other companies promised to protect walruses in the Gulf. Though there are no walruses in the Gulf of Mexico. The text seems to have been borrowed from planning documents for the Arctic. Along with BP, two other plans are, according to Markey, “such dead ringers for BP's that they list a phone number for the same expert - a man who has been dead since 2005.”
Despite this consensus, oil company representatives testifying before Congress claimed that the Deep Water Horizon was an isolated incident. One shouldn’t expect it to happen again. There are echoes of Bhopal, here. “It can’t happen here” was the industry wide- response to concern in the late 1980s that a “worse-case scenario” at a chemical plant – as happened in Bhopal – could occur in the United States. Despite many similarities in plant design and production processes. Representative Markey is right to point to a key interpretive clue: there actually is a deepwater rig, owned by Chevron, called “blind faith.”
What, here, is the role of the anthropologist? Anne Allison’s insistence on dwelling within is critical. It is through such dwelling that we will understand emerging conditions and the way legacy systems (discursive, political and technological) both constrain them, and are overridden. Indeed, it will only be through dwelling that we can get at conditions that are disastrous in the terms I’ve laid out here: conditions that can’t be conceived through extant frames. Conditions that don’t yet have an idiom. In seeking granular understanding, of the sort called for by Ben McMahan, we will gain a sense of what can’t yet be understood and addressed.
And we will heighten our sense of discursive risks: the risks that established frameworks will be “applied” even when out of synch with matters of concern. As seems to have happened within Sri Lanka, for example, where – as Choi describes – increased militarization of a rather predictable sort has been the response to the risks produced by a volatile coupling of social and tectonic hazard.
This is the challenge of intervention. Straightforward, “applied” approaches are hardly what is called for. Ethnographic approaches, involving dwelling within, with an ear to the ground and an eye on the way urgency tends to make us reactive rather than creative, can be a different way to responsibility. Ethnography rarely shows us what must be done. Indeed, its strength as a method is its capacity to unsettle available explanations and set teleologies. But ethnography does allow us the read the world as it it shifts, pointing to disjunctures between what is lived and built, and what has been articulated. This itself is a mode of action that seems right for our times. An intensively reflective mode of action that works on a system from within, opening pathways to different orderings of the world through attention to what (and who) gets left out.
This is not a new approach for anthropologists. But it does point to the renewed relevance of ethnography and anthropology in these – disastrous – times.
Kim Fortun is a Professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. With Mike Fortun, she was co-editor of Cultural Anthropology from 2005 to 2010.