I had the pleasure of reading Ilan Kelman’s new book “Disaster By Choice” recently in preparation for our webinar with him. My conversation with Ilan and our other guest Bijay Kumar was fascinating and absolutely worth watching.
But don’t stop at watching the webinar. I highly recommend Ilan’s book. “Disaster By Choice“ as an excellent example of how natural hazards and disaster researchers can write for a practitioner audience (not to mention other researchers). Click To Tweet The book is relatively unique in illustrating how theory actually is practical and has immediate implications for practitioners. Lastly, the topic of how to better get knowledge into action and integrate research and practice is directly and thoughtfully addressed.
In this post, I discuss each of those three points, after synthesizing the thesis of the book below.
Disasters Aren’t Natural; They’re a Choice
The book can be summarized by a single sentence: Human choices cause disasters, so human choices can prevent disasters. Describing how research findings can be put into practice can’t get more simple than that. These choices may be inadvertent or deliberate, but either way, they are human choices. By examining and uncovering these choices, we can better choose to reduce our vulnerability. The idea that disasters are not natural can result in daunting realizations of the roots of vulnerability. Click To Tweet But in contrast, the idea that disasters are a choice means that vulnerability is not inevitable because everyone can be empowered to make choices.
“Disasters by choice” means assessing the history of choices. This can reveal that rolling back previous decisions results in a reduction of future vulnerability more efficiently than coming up with new tactics in response to more recent shortsighted decisions. The choice of increasing vulnerability can be as simple as the choice of what language we use. For example, choosing to use highly technical language when speaking to practitioners, or the public, serves to confuse people and therefore paralyzes people in their ability to make their own choices to reduce their vulnerability.
A case described where we could roll back to a previous and more effective choice is FEMA’s Project Impact in Seattle, Washington. The decision to cancel this mitigation program was a deliberate choice to increase vulnerability across the city. The vulnerability could be reduced by rolling back to the previous choice to mitigate the local hazard.
One of the more compelling passages of the book is around the topic of money. We often hear the lament by politicians, practitioners, and property owners that reducing vulnerability and risk is just too expensive. But Kelman clearly illustrates how there is plenty of money and resources, it is just an issue of making the choice of how we allocate those funds. More often than not, this choice of how to allocate funding is not one about increasing or reducing one’s own vulnerability of the politician or the emergency manager. Instead, it is a choice of reducing or increasing the vulnerability of others who have less money and access to resources. The choice of how to spend money to reduce vulnerability does not only have to consider those who have fewer resources than others; it also has to make decisions to provide benefits beyond just disaster risk reduction. For example, spending money to tear up roads that reduce flood vulnerability and replacing them with parks that not only reduce vulnerability but provide the benefit of green space and more equitable access to recreation opportunities.
Disaster Theory is Useful
The theoretical constructs he lays out result in practical advice for vulnerable populations as typically defined by emergency managers. He clearly illustrates one of the core tenants of social vulnerability theory by pointing out that it is constructed by our daily activities and choices and, therefore, can also be reduced because of those same daily practices. Reducing vulnerability, in other words, doesn’t have to be a significant and expensive endeavor. Here is an example where not only is theory practical in its application, the recommendations come across as much more implementable for more people than many emergency management recommendations, such as storing two weeks of food and buying expensive backup batteries and generators.
He flips the notion of vulnerability that many practitioners often have, which they commonly translate into checklists and quantitative indices. He instead shows the understanding of vulnerability requires understanding and applying theory for specific contexts. In other words, he demonstrates that sometimes the theory is more powerful and practical than over-generalized heuristics.
For example, the heuristic that women are inherently more vulnerable than men can lead to mistaken recommendations because, for this example, vulnerability is more about how gender is constructed and treated in the local context. And therefore, it requires emergency managers and other decision-makers to consider the norms and behaviors in their particular locale and so, in turn, the local vulnerability of their specific hazards to make the best recommendation to their residents.
The standard emergency management approach of creating vulnerable-populations checklists can lead to less useful recommendations and tactics. For example, the idea that people with disabilities are inherently vulnerable. When, in fact, it’s the choices of how we address and provide access and experiences for those whose abilities are mismatched with our treatment of and the environment around them.
Arguably, understanding social vulnerability theory is more useful than creating deterministic vulnerable-populations checklists. In the case of wealth, in many instances, low incomes mean higher vulnerability. However, in some cases, high incomes lead to choices of living in high hazard areas. But even when high wealth contributes to higher vulnerability, the wealthy have more power and choice to make the decision to reduce their own vulnerability. Reducing their own vulnerability will reduce the vulnerability of those with lower incomes by freeing up important and critical response and recovery resources. Click To Tweet
There is an underlying thread of philosophical pragmatism in the book, where the truth is about consequence. By assessing the results of our choices, we can change the truth about our current vulnerability to a new and better truth. I appreciated that Kelman brought in the concept of design because, ultimately, intentional design is the choice we make about how to go from a current undesirable state to a future desirable state. (Of course, there is always the question of who specifically finds that new state desirable.)
Research and Practice (Sometimes) Need to Converge
The book directly takes on the problem of getting research findings into practice and knowledge into action. Kelman diagnoses the difficulty of getting knowledge into action as not merely a problem of communication between researchers and practitioners, as most people frame it, but because of potential mismatches between the interests and choices of researchers practitioners, and the public. We all share in the blame; we all can and should participate in the strategies for addressing the issue.
He reveals that, in some cases, research has managed to be translated into practice, but how it was translated into practice was to simplify it to the point of it being ineffective. For example, the research on social capital is often simplified to the point where the distinction between bridging, bonding, and linking capital is lost. Or other constructs of social vulnerability may overwhelm the potential benefits of social capital-increasing approaches implemented by emergency managers, depending on the specific context.
Kelman explains that sometimes there won’t be any or sufficient research on a particular issue specifically related to disasters. In many cases, it is appropriate to draw lessons from research about other areas of life, in other words, not specifically related to disasters. He points out many areas where there is insufficient research on disasters and why it is practical to fund more investigations into these particular topics.
A compelling case is made that much research actually should not be translated into practice. There are levels and types of research that perhaps are too risky and will lead to unfortunate consequences if brought in to practice--ever or prematurely. Click To Tweet We, researchers and practitioners, have to collaborate to decide what research gets into practice and what practice informs research agendas.
For Convergence, Style Matters
You can tell that Kelman had a clear, well-defined vision for the book. The writing is concise and to the point, resulting in a quick read. He lays out simple and straightforward definitions, not overly academic ones. The prose and explanation of science use simple, understandable language. He provides those little details that make reading descriptions enjoyable but manages to avoid flowery prose that, at least for me, tends to be boring. Comparison and metaphors are used to good effect throughout to explain potentially tricky ideas. The clear and vivid language helps to explain potentially confusing concepts. His writing manages to be relatively optimistic even though the vastness and depth of the problem of disaster vulnerability are profound.
Use of Stories
The book uses stories throughout to make what might be dry theory inspiring and meaningful. The stories and examples make the concepts and recommendations personal and relatable. He cites dates, facts, and figures like many publications about disaster events do. However, he makes them more compelling than most authors because he puts them in context and surrounds them with stories. History is used to enrich stories and provide depth to explanations. You get an intimate understanding of some locale’s vulnerability because he focuses not just on a single event but a series of events across decades.
There is a rigorously and well-researched theory that underlies this book. Kelman’s approach, though, to explaining this theory is not to describe intricate details of the theoretical constructs that academics have built out over the last few decades from their research. Instead, he uses compelling stories to reveal the implications for practice of this critical theoretical contribution from research.
The detail that he provides to make particular events and stories more interesting demonstrate he put in a daunting amount of work. I did not expect someone who has not lived in or studied Seattle would know that the one and only death associated with the 2001 Nisqually earthquake was a heart attack.
He very explicitly talks about all types of people. Kelman talks about different ages, nationalities, and levels of ability for particular interventions and actions. The book brings in experiences that most of us have probably had, like watching the movie Bambi. Even his examples of people’s “bad choices” are inclusive and come across as more compassionate than many other authors who tend to assign blame and point fingers.
He tells stories and examples from around the world, not just in one country. The descriptions, explanations, and stories seamlessly transition between local and global scales. The theory of disasters as choice across multiple scales shows that to give local people a choice to reduce their own vulnerability requires reversing choices made at higher levels. He is somehow able to cover just about every type of hazard and aspect of vulnerability one can experience, together with many examples of what you can do about them.
Somehow Kelman offers recommendations without being condescending or finger-wagging. For many risk reduction topics, he manages to provide multiple options for doing so, which for me and other publications, is rare. “Disaster By Choice” really brings the examples and recommendations down to our daily lives and practices to make them more impactful.