How the most significant deleterious factor in natural disasters may be the human element.
“Disasters can conceal as much as they reveal,” writes Mutter (Earth and Environmental Sciences, International and Public Affairs/Columbia Univ.) in this plainspoken but urgent book. The author examines the intersection of the tragic loss of life and livelihood with civic irresponsibility and personal/institutional venality, played out through ill-preparedness and opportunistic aftermaths of the event. In doing so, Mutter endeavors to approach disasters panoptically, considering both sides of what he calls the Feynman line: that the natural and social sciences are inextricably linked in how we contend with hazards and disasters. It has everything to do with wealth, poverty, vulnerability, resilience, corruption, cronyism, racism, and a whole cacophony of social ills. Mutter frames matters clearly: capital works for its holders, who ensure that their capital grows by being close to the center of power in order to manipulate policy and lawmaking to their advantage. Think of the former vice president, Dick Cheney, who ran “Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, which...received tens of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts for reconstruction work” after Hurricane Katrina. Mutter presents a wealth of material evidence as well as social science theory—using the United States, Haiti, and Myanmar as examples—to explain how the elite class, without oversight, makes decisions as to where and what will be rebuilt, allocates lucrative contracts, and exploits the “opportunity to reshape society in order to secure its hold on power and capital.” The author delves into realms of racial bias (who’s a “thief” when looting, who’s just a “survivor”), panic response, the “Samaritan’s dilemma,” and “creative destruction.” He concludes that post-disaster risk reduction must be realistic, that reconstruction must be inclusive, and that neutral parties must ensure the appropriate use of relief funds: obvious, yes; practiced, rarely.
A hackle-raising book about nature and human nature, venality and justice, and how disasters—before, during, and after—sharply mirror society.