A “Bill of Rights”for people living on a dangerous planet

The 2014 Natural Hazards Workshop is underway; it’s the 39th in a distinguished series, and remarkable in several respects. Held in Broomfield, Colorado, it brings together researchers from the natural sciences and social sciences. It then mixes these two groups with practitioners – emergency managers and county and local officials, representatives of indigenous peoples, and others who are building community resilience on the ground, day-to-day. It is international. It is by invitation only, and yet every year a third of those participating are first timers. It’s an incubator for new ideas on reducing the risk from hazards of every type. As a four-day experience, there’s nothing to match it.

This Wednesday I’ll be part of a panel in a breakout session entitled “Just resilience.” Here’s the thumbnail, and a list of the panelists: Resilience is not static (although some may treat it as such). Because resilience must be dynamic and contextual it calls into question relationships of people to people, place to place, people to places, systems to systems, and values to values. The consequences are injustice and the usual ethical rationales do not address the justice issues. This panel will look at real, concrete, and pressing resilience issues through the lens of ‘the just’. The panel will suggest directions the resilience community can take to create just and lasting resilience.

Richard Krajeski, Natural Hazard Mitigation Association - Moderator

Kristina Peterson, Lowlander Center - Panelist

William Hooke, American Meteorological Society - Panelist

Rosina Philippe, Grand Bayou Village – Panelist

Tyronne Edwards, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana – Panelist

Our moderator, Richard Krajeski, is an ordained Presbyterian minister, as is his wife, Dr. Kristina Peterson, who is also a nationally-known hazards researcher. Rosina Philippe is a Native American, a member of the Atakapa-Ishak tribe. She hails from Louisiana and is one of the most compelling voices on the impacts of hurricanes and oil spills on Gulf communities and their way of life. (Want a sample? Click here and chose any of the many video clips available. And a note to scientists who are communicator-wannabes. When we see experts on television and other media, we often see them quoted in 15-30-second sound bites. That seems to be the longest time interval over which we’re capable of coherent expression. And many of those who coach us coach to that reality. But many of Ms. Philippe’s clips show her speaking uninterrupted for several minutes at a stretch. She’s a marvel.)

Back to the panel discussion. As you can see, it focuses on social-justice aspects of the resilience issue. These are big topics and many people have thought and written eloquently on the subject. This post and the next will preview my own (minor) additions to the Broomfield discussion.

To start, let’s ask ourselves what the founding fathers might have had to say on the subject. Among other contributions, they’ve given us the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. In that spirit, what might a notional bill of rights address in light of the world’s natural hazards? Here’s a speculative set, for you to improve upon.

The right to life (in the face of hazards). In the real world we live on, this can’t be guaranteed, but it ought to be an aspirational goal. Perhaps it could be softened to mean the right to a warning. This was beyond the technological means of the 17th-18th century world, but rather within our capabilities today for virtually all meteorological hazards and even some landslides, volcanic eruptions, and, to a limited extent, even a few seconds heads-up with respect to earthquakes, depending on the circumstances. Of course, to be effective, warnings should be accompanied by recommended options for action, which implies provision of shelters and other means for taking cover.

Home should be the safest place to be. In America, when it comes to many hazards such as hurricanes and flooding, home has come to mean little more in such circumstances than the point of embarkation for evacuation. But home should be defensible/offer the option of sheltering in place. This is a big issue from a social justice standpoint. To meet this standard requires adequate policies with respect to land use and stringent building codes. Many countries, including the United States, fall short. The poor and disenfranchised are instead consigned to homes on unstable slopes, in floodplains, on hazardous coasts, or surmounting earthquake fault zones. Brazil’s favelas (pictured) famously come to mind.

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A job to return to once the hazard has come and gone. One element of “disaster” is that the community disruption persists long after the hazard has receded. Often this is because workplaces have been shuttered either by out-and-out destruction, or by failure of one or another critical infrastructure. Since most families live paycheck-to-paycheck, loss of work quickly puts an end to any hope of return to normal routine.

Natural disasters should remain “natural.” To see the challenge, take floods as an example. Rising water is by itself problematic; but the reality is that the flood quickly becomes a slurry of sewage waste, animal carcasses, and toxic chemicals. Under the right circumstances, such “floodwaters” can even catch fire.

It would be possible to continue in this vein. Perhaps a society grown dependent upon critical infrastructure should formulate a “right” to that infrastructure and so on. An attractive feature of a list such as this is that the finger points at everyone. Those of us providing Earth observations, science, and services see the warning challenge. Builders, developers, and local public-sector officials have a job with respect to land use and building codes. The private sector can best see the path forward to business continuity in the face of hazards, and so on. None of us is a spectator.

That brings us to two final points. First, given that our planet conducts much if not most of its business through extremes, it’s unrealistic to expect any of these rights to be realizable in practice. Second… and far more fundamentally… the flip side of “rights” is “responsibilities.” For each of us, the real need is find and then master the balance between these notions as responsibilities we must shoulder, for ourselves and our families, and as rights that we’re entitled to demand.

In the next post, a look at just resilience from a spiritual perspective.

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