By David Etkin, York University

At one point during a presentation I was making at the 2017 CRHNet conference in Halifax, the brilliant Lily Yumagulova asked me how we could find the ‘sweet spot’ in a risk assessment[i] – the point that balances risk versus reward, the point that represents the optimal place where society should be in terms of our disaster experience.

Good question…

For my reply I mumbled some of the usual blah, blah, blah about risk being socially constructed, acceptable levels of risk, wicked problems, and so forth. The perceptive Lily noted that this was nothing new, and of course she was right. I was flailing and could not provide a good answer to her question.

I couldn’t get this question out of my mind for the rest of the day, evening, part of the night (i.e. lost sleep – thanks Lily) or following morning. Why could I not come up with a good answer to that question? So, instead of continuing to think about the answer I decided to try some frame switching and to think about the question. What assumptions underlay it? Is it the best question to ask? Is the question even valid?

Lily’s question is rooted in a western rationalist, objectivist paradigm that views the world as a system that can be mathematically described and that permits the calculation of future states given a set of initial conditions. It assumes that there is a sweet spot (debatable), that it is knowable (also debatable), and that a policy objective would be to create a set of strategies that would get us there (unstated in the question, but implicit in why it was asked).

The problem with these assumptions is that we exist in a complex adaptive system, quite unlike the classical Newtonian framework that allows for deterministic solutions to be found. From the complex adaptive paradigm, even if there is a sweet spot it is probably unknowable and any attempt to create policies and strategies to reach it might well create unanticipated consequences. Complex adaptive systems have a tendency to find their own solutions. One example of this can be seen in the recent response in Puerto Rico, which suffered immense damage from Hurricane Maria. An emergent organization called ChefsForPuertoRico has served over 3 million meals (as of November 27, 2017), more than any other organization[ii].

When Lily asked this question, what was she really asking? The location of a sweet spot is really about something else – the reduction of suffering. Lily was really asking how we can suffer less from disasters, and that perspective allowed me to reframe the question by switching from the perspective of trying to find an optimal state of a system, to looking at the system itself. Since complex adaptive systems tend to find their own solutions that depend upon system characteristics, perhaps I should not be thinking about a particular system state, but rather about system dynamics.

So, I tried switching frames and tried to assess our social-economic-environmental system from a different perspective. One lens I have been using lately is based upon ethical decision-making. Amazingly, an analysis I did of over 20,000 pages of risk assessments done by state, provincial and national emergency management organizations as well as by a number of NGOs revealed zero ethical analysis[iii]. As well, a literature search of academic papers found only a few papers that had been published on ethical risk assessment. This is nothing short of astonishing, and is symbolic of the post-Renaissance divide between rationalism and moral philosophy! Have we, as a society, taken the divide between Church and State too far?

Using this lens I could reframe the question as “Why are so many of the institutions that create or manage risk not moral actors?” This would mainly apply to the private sector, whose prescriptive duty is simply to make money for shareholders.  Moral actors have duties and obligations to society. Amoral actors, not so much… If all our institutions were expected to behave as moral actors would the system evolve towards a happier[iv] solution?

From a normative point of view citizens, governmental institutions and many NGOs are moral actors, though at times (and perhaps too frequently) they do not act such. But much of disaster risk is a function of decisions made within the private sector – think of Bhopal, a deadly gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in India that may be the world’s most tragic industrial disaster, or that over 80% of critical infrastructure is owned by private sector companies.

Why shouldn’t companies be moral actors as well? Why shouldn’t governments have actual departments of ethics instead of the odd ethics officer? Wouldn’t this create a world we would prefer to live in?

Companies exist because we made them up – they are only a human creation and we could redefine the nature of the social contract that exists between them and the rest of society, if we so chose.  Could the social contract that exists between citizens and governments provide an example for redefining the dynamics between society and private sector companies? Certainly there are differences, but I doubt that they are impenetrable.

My mentor, the venerable Ian Burton, has been saying for some time that the real problem of disasters doesn’t lie within the realm of disaster risk reduction (DRR), but rather in disaster risk creation (DRC). Does addressing DRC require a different fundamental dynamic in society?  Can we imagine a society more firmly rooted in moral values that demands virtuous behavior from individuals, the private sector and institutions, but which still avoids the social traps of rigidity and intolerance?

I believe that the answer is yes.

Prof. David Etkin is an associate professor of Disaster and Emergency Management at York University and a co-founder of the Canadian Risk and Hazards Network. He is the author of Disaster Theory: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Concepts and Causes.

[i] Of course, some would say the sweet spot is zero risk, but that is unachievable.

[ii]  Burton, M. (2017).  José Andrés and Team Served 3 Million Meals in Puerto Rico, Retrieved from December 14, 2017.

[iii] This is not to say that ethical thinking is totally absent from all disaster/emergency management processes; for example, many NGOs incorporate moral values into their response principles. One good example of this is the Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response.

[iv] From a utilitarian-egalitarian perspective