If Natural Disasters are natural then why call them a Disaster?

The influences of different paradigms on how we perceive recovery

Often, the main desire expressed by people living in a disaster struck community is an eagerness to restore their community to the pre-disaster situation as quickly as possible. “Get everything back to how it used to be” is an often heard phrase in the aftermath of a disaster. It is understandable that after a horrifying event such as a natural disaster disturbing one’s life, all people want is to return to a comfortable but mostly familiar state. But is a return to a pre-disaster situation, which allowed for the disaster to happen in the first place, desired?

One reason we long to rebuild our disaster-struck communities to the way they were, comes from our belief in our ability to alter the (natural) environment. This belief is couched on the anthropocentric paradigm that is currently prevailing in Western science. But what would happen if we were to look at the world from an eco-centric paradigm? To keeps things simple, I’ll use the recovery of natural systems to explain the two different paradigms. Then I will discuss what the impacts of these paradigms are on community recovery.

Anthropocentric Paradigm

The anthropocentric paradigm for post-disaster recovery is based on the idea that human-made hazard protection systems are better in terms of creating resilience and providing mitigation than natural systems (Burby, 1998 and Dryzek, 2005). For example, humans tend to build dikes in floodplains although floodplains can serve as a tool to reduce the damage from flooding (Kousky and Zeckhauser, 2006). The concept of anthropocentrism is tightly linked to the post-Industrial Revolution changes in society and the development of capitalism: economic growth has become the main justifier for making humans the centre of the world (Klein, 2007).

Are natural disasters part of a natural cycle?

One might argue that when speaking of the “recovery of natural systems” an anthropocentric paradigm is being used since it suggests that a disaster is not part of a natural cycle. However, it depends on what is meant with “recovery”. The recovery of the natural environment is often measured in terms of its contribution to a return to pre-disaster levels of ‘the quality of life’. Attributes to the quality of life are often measured in price (e.g. price of wood, clean water etc.) or in qualities such as the provision of aesthetics and recreational space. However, all these attributes, or ecosystem services, are anthropocentric attributes of the quality of life. White (1973) explains that economic optimization is the main driving force in the post-disaster recovery decision-making period. This perception is purely anthropocentric. However, untouched natural systems, e.g a coastal system, go through a process of recovery as well. This type of recovery is different in that it doesn’t involve humans and is not expressed in economic terms. This duality shows that the perception of humans of the natural environment and the way humans perceive themselves with regard to their own environment is crucial for the perception of recovery in general.

Ecocentric Paradigm

Burby (1998) argues in favour of bringing back or implementing ecosystem services instead of relying on anthropocentric disaster reduction tools. An important aspect of the recovery of natural systems in an ecocentric paradigm is the emphasis on valuing the intrinsic aspects of ecosystem services rather than anthropocentric aspects of ecosystem services which are defined as provisioning to humans.

Within ecocentrism, Minteer (2009) distinguishes between strong and weak ecocentrism. Weak ecocentrism is defined as “humans hold a higher moral significance than the other natural things that are taken to have moral standing” and explains this as human behaviour not necessarily being constrained  by its effects on an ecosystem. Strong ecocentrism is defined as “equal or more than equal moral significance to other nonhuman, natural things which are taken to have moral standing” (Minteer, 2009, p. 84). In these definitions, moral standing relates to how the different paradigms define the intrinsic value of natural things (Minteer 2009).

Finally, sustainability can be another aspect of the ecocentric paradigm (Monday, 2009). It could also be argued that a sustainable approach provides a midway between both paradigms. Here, sustainability means that humans value an ecosystem not only for their economic value but also for their intrinsic value combined with taking a long-term approach.

The Influence of the Anthropocentric Paradigm on the Concept of Recovery

So what is the influence of how we think about our world and our relationship as humans with our environment on community recovery? Post-disaster recovery can be measured in terms of the recovery of built environment; economics, businesses; social, health and safety, and natural resources and ecosystems. The outcomes of many disaster related research would have been different had an ecocentric paradigm been adopted, because the nature of the change that takes place in an ecosystem as caused by a natural disaster would have been viewed significantly differently. The current perception in the western world where ecosystems are valued for their natural resources is best captured by the anthropocentric paradigm. This perception is not or to a lesser extent captured by the ecocentric paradigms.

What makes a natural event a disaster?

Furthermore, the term “natural disaster” is arguably an anthropocentric one because it assumes that a natural event that influences humans and their environment negatively is a “disaster”. Similarly, we tend to speak of floods or hurricanes as “natural events” rather than “natural disasters” when humans are not impacted by or vulnerable to these events (e.g., when they occur in an unpopulated area).

The NRC (2004) explains that nowadays humans tend to regard the natural environment and the ecosystem of which it is part as natural capital. As dictated by the anthropocentric paradigm, the natural capital is assessed by the value of its services. An ecosystem provides humans with a variety of ‘marketable goods’. These values determine the actions of humans with regard to an ecosystem (see fig. 2). For assessing the recovery of natural systems this implies that humans will try to (re-) establish these economic values of an ecosystem after a disaster.

Both factors, the increased occurrence and severity of natural hazards as well as increased vulnerability, make the assessment of natural hazards and post-disaster recovery an urgent issue. The pressure of humans on their environment is growing and this underscores the importance in how we assess the recovery and mitigation efforts with regards to these natural systems in the post-disaster period.

Recovery: Return to Pre-Disaster Conditions?

Recovery can be perceived in different ways: recovery to a pre-disaster situation and recovery to a new stable state. As explained before, in the aftermath of a disaster, often times people want to “recover” to the pre-disaster situation; but how would one define recovery when one assumes that the environment is constantly changing and there is no stable state? Metrics that could be used to measure post-disaster recovery of an ecosystem in a weak ecocentric paradigm would have to take into account human as well as non-human factors that depend on the ecosystem. Post-disaster recovery would have to be framed differently to address the concept of post-disaster recovery of the environment from an ecocentric paradigm.

Mitigation

When trying to implement mitigation measures in the recovery process, the local government faces some challenges. First, when weighing the speed versus the quality of recovery, local governments, when trying to satisfy the community, focuses on the former. Especially in urban areas it is difficult to change patters and former investments in infrastructure. Combined with the time pressure practitioners are feel, this often leads to a lesser emphasis on integrating mitigation measures in the recovery planning and process. After a disaster the focus often lies on economic recovery as well as recovery of the built environment (Burby, 1998; White, 1973). Restoration efforts regarding the environment most often focus on developing protection against natural hazards. But what all these recovery efforts have in common, is that they often times ignore the natural cycle.

Sustainable Development: A Middle Ground?

Many researchers argue in favour of a sustainable approach towards the management of post- disaster recovery. Sustainability in this context is often defined as controlling human behaviour rather than controlling the hazard. Another goal of the sustainable approach, as suggested by Monday (2009) is to maintain and enhance the quality of the environment. This means that humans perceive themselves as being part of a natural system rather than overpowering it. As being part of it, it tries to avoid unnecessary negative impacts of their actions on the surrounding natural system. Monday (2009) argues that aiming for sustainable recovery is done by means of land-use management in order to minimize vulnerability. Nowadays, a disaster is often used to transform a natural site into a more sustainable development. This is in contrast with the anthropocentric paradigm that allows for nature to be used as a site for implementing mitigation tools such as levees and dikes. Land-use restrictions are not often applied in post-disaster recovery by US governments which causes people to keep living in hazardous sites (Burby, 1998). There are several ways for addressing sustainable recovery. Burby (1998) discusses the possibility of standalone plans that focus on a certain area, for example, a floodplain management plan. This approach allows for emphasizing the needs of a natural system to recover.

Should We Change Our Paradigm?

An often asked question is whether fundamental changes in prevailing assumptions and attitudes are required to address contemporary environmental issues. I would suggest that for the reasons just mentioned both an ecocentric approach as well as an anthropocentric approach are being used to assess the recovery. First, the anthropocentric approach is easier to use for policy makers as well as the general public since it is part of our common way of thinking. To apply the ecocentric paradigm to assessing recovery a shift in our thinking would be required. The (underlying) assumptions that are being made in western societies for recovery are framed by the anthropocentric paradigm which might be too narrow for the current world we live in.

Author: Marleen C. de Ruiter

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