Review | Curbing Catastrophe: Natural Hazards and Risk Reduction in the Modern World

Timothy H. Dixon Curbing Catastrophe:  Natural Hazards and Risk Reduction in the Modern World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp. xxi, 300  ISBN: 9781107035188

This book was written more for the general reader than the specialist.  As such, it is a most useful book.  The author is a professor of geosciences and director of the Natural Hazards Network at the University of South Florida.  He has also conducted research at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech and elsewhere but, more significantly for the purposes of this book, he has extensive practical experience in his area as both a commercial pilot and a diver.  As he notes as the key for the book, ‘Scientists have the job of educating the public and government officials about how we can do a better job of “fitting in” to our environment.’  His practical experience supplements his scientific knowledge in demonstrating how better communication about pending threats could have greatly mitigated the dire consequences of natural disasters.

In nine chapters, plus an online appendix of additional background material (available at www.cambridge.org/dixon), Dixon structures his analyses around case-studies of recent natural disasters, particularly the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, to demonstrate how better expert communication on the long-term risks could have reduced the consequent costs, both human and otherwise.  The problem, Dixon notes, is twofold:  scientists are not good communicators (to anyone outside the experts in their own field) and the public is either not listening or is actively resistant to scientific warnings.  Having worked in both New Orleans and Haiti prior to their disasters, Dixon demonstrates how even the well-meaning in both cases, such as aid workers, were resistant to even hearing about long-term risks due to their focus on the more immediate (such as feeding people).  Other resistance is not so innocent.  Many times it amounts to active opposition based upon indifferent ignorance.

I should note that Dixon himself is not given to such judgmental observations.  Rather, his book  proceeds methodically, structured as a primer, and with due scientific detachment.  He is demonstrating, not lecturing.  He begins by defining long-term risks and their real-world impacts (e.g., on markets), sets out the practical implications of the differences between natural and man-made disasters, underlines the role scientific uncertainty plays, details the flooding and earthquake case-studies noted above, with two additional chapters on the toxic legacies of lead, mercury and coal and on global warming, and proceeds to a chapter on solutions.  Here, Dixon’s practicality comes suitably to the fore:  ‘Let markets work their magic.’  Billions of dollars could be saved through the adoption of longer-term thinking, particularly on infrastructural planning and building:  for instance,  listening to scientists on the ‘consequences of building things in harm’s way or designing them to an inadequate standard.’

This concluding chapter is packed with practical solutions (helpfully summarized on pages 268-69), aimed at demonstrating to the recalcitrant how it would be to their interests in the here-and-now to heed expert advice.  For instance, Dixon emphasizes how effective markets can be at identifying (and pricing) risk, thus affecting the behavior of buyers and sellers.  The prime barrier to fully functioning markets in risk-management is lack of information.  Dixon is strong on common sense solutions to such problems, which, rather than radical departures, aim at improving existing procedures.  As he remarks, ‘Improvements happen slowly, but they do happen.’  We have two centuries of industrialization which demonstrate our capabilities to make things better.  More often than not, the key is getting politicians to focus on legislating the solution to problems over the long term (that is, in most cases shifting their focus beyond the election cycle), which means making the problems and their solutions so transparent that the public will compel our politicians to so act.  All of which brings us back to the need for our scientists to communicate better.  One particular apt solution proposed by Dixon would be the legislation of whistleblower protection for scientists against special interest harassment.

There is one significant lacuna in this book.  Though, as noted, Dixon calls on international disasters for illustration, he does not truly consider the role of international cooperation in mitigating the impact of natural disasters.  I can speak directly (from two decades of experience) to the practicalities of international intergovernmental negotiations.  Even the inexperienced would recognize that in any such negotiations there are competing legitimate interests at play.  My own experiences taught me that more inhibiting to finding true solutions was the simple reality that most of the nations involved were not there to achieve something but to not lose something.  ‘Papering over’ does not convey at all the linguistic contortions resorted to in order to produce a final ‘agreement.’

But this would probably require a separate book of its own.  As an examination of our own problems at home and their solutions through better communication, this book is the model.

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