and construction management. School of Architecture and built environment University of Newcastle, Australia.
As long ago as the 1970s, scholars were already of the opinion that there’s no such thing as a truly natural “disaster”. Instead, there are simply conditions that allow for certain areas of society to be disproportionately harmed by natural events.
So, just how can we reduce the risk to human life during these occurrences? To answer this question, researchers like Dr. Jason von Meding at the University of Newcastle, Australia, are applying the scientific method to social, political, and environmental issues, and asking how humanity will be able to support itself in an era of increased consumption, and finite Earthly resources.
Jason: Hi Nerina. My name is Jason von Meding. I’m a senior lecturer at the University of New Castle, Australia and I generally say my area of research is disaster science or disaster studies, but specifically in my field, we talk about disaster risk reduction.
Nerina: You wrote that there are not any natural disasters. Could you tell me more about this?
Jason: Disasters are sometimes seen by both the people that are affected by them and by scientists, by decision-makers, policymakers as something that could really be avoided, which is nobody’s fault, which is an act of nature, which is maybe an act of God. They start to approach disaster in this way which takes away any culpability from the people who create the conditions where people are vulnerable to a disaster. A lot of us in that field are committed to fighting against this terminology because I think it creates this context where nobody is responsible, where nobody is accountable for the people that are impacted by disasters.
Nerina: Who is affected by disasters?
Jason: Disaster impacts affect the poor, they affect the marginalized, and they affect the people who are most unjustly treated by the conditions of the society. You will be able to find some examples of a disaster which only affected a small number of rich people, right? So there will be exceptions but they’re exceptions to the rule. The rule is that disasters affect the most vulnerable in society because of their structural conditions which are not an accident, they’re by design. So the way our societies are structured is to benefit a few people at the expense of the others and these are the things which you don’t get to talk about if you use words like natural disasters.
Nerina: How did you get into this topic?
Jason. I think when I was about 12 in school I really started to feel like I wanted to pursue a career as an architect and right through school that was my one focus. When I went to University to study to be an architect, I started to work in the practice. When I was just finishing off my postgraduate studies I had the chance to do a research thesis and at that time Hurricane Katrina had just affected the US. So I was born in the US, from Chicago originally. So I put together a proposal to go and do some field study there looking mostly at how a hurricane affects buildings. So of course, I was interested in buildings and design, materials, structures. So I went to the Gulf Coast of US and did a very, very simple study.
You know I was affected by the stories coming from Gulf Coast of how people were impacted. I ended up doing not only a study of buildings but of people. So I started to talk to people about their experiences. I started to talk to design professionals but also just residents who are affected. So that fed into my thesis.
Nerina: You decided to change your career from being an architect to a researcher. When was the turning point?
Jason: I think when I went to Southeast Asia to conduct fieldwork for my Ph.D. I went out there with the intention of helping or producing knowledge to help NGOs manage disasters better or become more efficient as organizations. I was mostly collecting data from project managers within these NGOs. I heard stories through them about what it was like for people to experience disasters, but when I got the opportunity to actually hear directly from people who are impacted then it really started making me think about the structural problems that people were suffering from.
Because when I heard from people that were affected by this tsunami in Sri Lanka or by cyclones in Bangladesh they started to tell me about the conditions of vulnerability which they were forced to live in and those were the things that cause them to be affected by disasters. They didn’t feel like well it’s was just a natural disaster that has destroyed our homes or has killed people very dear to us. They felt like they were put in a position of vulnerability by conditions in their society, which were not fair. So they were poor, they were very marginalized and this is why they were affected like they were. So that really changed the way that I thought about disasters because it made me think much more about the social constructs which determine how people experience disasters. That really maybe shifted my research agenda for my career.
Nerina: What are you focusing on right now in your research?
Jason: A lot of our research is on the social science side. So a lot of the time we’re working with vulnerable communities to understand how they experience vulnerability, how they experience hazards. It’s important to distinguish between disasters and hazards. If you have an earthquake which occurs in a location with no people who are vulnerable then you don’t have a disaster, you just have a hazard. What we try to in my group is to conduct scientific research to better understand the conditions that people experience and produce by their knowledge to present to the public, to present the policymakers, to the whole range of stakeholders in this field to try to convince them that we need to think more about the real courses of a disaster which are rooted in the way societies are constructed. So that’s how I try to explain my research to people.
Nerina: You wrote that disaster risk reduction should be everybody’s business. Should it be and why?
Jason: A lot of people when you speak to them about disasters will not necessarily be thinking about the social and political and economic angle. Of course, if you say economic system or politics is everybody’s business. That’s alright, yeah okay, but if you say disasters are, then not everyone understands the connection. So that’s something that I feel quite strongly about and it’s something I’m working on is how do we communicate the importance of involving stakeholders from across the spectrum in the discourse about disasters, connecting all these disperse interests and actors in this discussion about reducing risk. Because reducing risk is really about addressing the vulnerability, addressing structural injustices which often have its roots in historical events or historical developments. So I think the critical thing is really connecting all of those social constructs which everyone accepts as being part of something everyone should be involved in with the understanding of disasters. That’s what I’m trying to do through my kind of public advocacy and position as an author, as a communicator.
Nerina: What has changed in this field of research over the last few decades?
Jason: The field has been active for a long time, 50 years. You know that it has very much progressed from a traditional understanding of disasters. In the 1980s you had efforts to manage disasters better; really that was kind of the approach. When the UN got involved it was to manage disasters and then to reduce disasters and then as we progressed over time you start to talk about reducing the risk of disasters. So, there’s been this progression in the language that is used in this. Although even in the 1970s top scholars were saying that we need to appreciate that no disaster is natural. So that’s a long time ago and we’re still having this debate.
So in some ways, things are still the same but we’ve learned so much more in many fields and we definitely learned a lot more about the real causes of disasters. In the last 10 years, that’s been really driving a lot of great research. So in 2015, we had significant global frameworks on climate change, on sustainable development and also on disaster risk reduction. In Sendai in Japan, we had the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in March 2015 which was agreed by the nations of the UN; which was really a global commitment to adhere to certain principles.
Nerina: Are we on the right path in your opinion?
Jason: When I go to some of these international forums which are said to represent the international community… I mean now in 2017 we have a pretty good representation of stakeholders from different segments of society. So, you have your government representatives, your NGOs, the UN bodies, the community activists. You know the UN and different UN agencies have really taken the lead on bringing governments, bringing scientists and communities together to talk about these key issues.
So on paper, it all looks like a pretty good representation of the diversity of voices, but when you actually look at who’s speaking, who’s on the panel, who is in the small room at the side or who is on the preliminary stage then you start to see where the real power is. The voices that are given the most space are those who have the existing power, who represents the interest of maintaining the status quo and this is a big problem at that international level. It’s that we’re not putting the issues that really need to be discussed in the primary position.
Nerina: Which are the issues that need to be discussed?
Jason: Some of the things which are kind of unquestioned are this idea that we can have economic growth forever, and maybe through our innovation, we will find a way to stop damaging the environment, while still growing. But it comes back to the ideology that we actually need economic growth. There’s lots of literature out there which challenges this assumption but I think in terms of disaster risk reduction community it’s not really being challenged vigorously enough.
I would say that most of those in the scientific community, certainly most of those in large global institutions move ahead with that assumption. Maybe they agree that we should challenge but they think argh it’s just too difficult, it is not the right time. You know we have to work within the limits of like where we are in this time and space.
The other one that I really felt strongly about recently was this idea that we can continue to consume to the level that is expected by developed societies, highly developed societies. If you’re going to developing countries and you start to talk to people about what their idea of success or of a healthy society would be. They usually point to a country like the US or they point to Europe and say if only we could be like them, then we would be developed and we would be successful. As a global community and led by Western culture, we’ve become addicted to trying to consume and trying to accumulate as much as possible. The reality is that we’re on a planet with finite resources and already we consume far more than the earth can replenish. Only a small part of human society has reached developed or highly developed status.
So, when you start to let your mind think ahead to what would it mean for humanity if 5 billion more people join the middle class and start to consume the average American. That’s really a crazy thought and that’s a very scary prospect because it is just not possible. So, we need to start talking about this much more seriously. We need to start not only talking to developing nations and say well maybe that’s not the trajectory for societies to go in. But we have to challenge our own conception of what’s we are entitled to. Are we in highly developed countries entitled to consume like this forever when everybody else can’t or you know we can’t really say that. But on the other hand, are we really prepared to give up what we’re used to. It’s a big challenge.
Nerina: Yes indeed and what kind of world do you see these for researchers?
Jason: So in my position as a researcher, as a scientist, I try to think about what kind of knowledge I can generate, can I build which will actually help people to fight against injustice, which will help people to mobilize to move ahead, to build momentum to create change. So that’s kind of where I think I can best use my time and my efforts is by using my position to speak, to create this discussion to refocus people on they’re the real problems. They not only need to understand why but they need to understand how, like what they can do. I think there’s an important role for academics, for scientists to generate change.
Nerina: What kind of change do we need?
Jason: I’m making a documentary movie which is called Deviate and it’s really trying to express, articulate a lot of these issues which I’m interested in, which are connected to disasters. In the making of this movie, I’ve been talking with a lot of people who are part of movements or who are kind of influencers in different ways of change. I am hearing stories about how people resist structural injustice in their society and how they generate momentum for movements for change. So, there are different ways and I think we need a coordinated effort in all these different spaces. I mean there is no panacea, there’s no one way to get to a better society. But we need to advocate for all of these strategies as a coordinated movement for change which is inclusive because there’s no one way that we can make things better.
Nerina: Is there something that everybody can or should do?
Jason: I think we need to really go outside our comfort zone in our own sphere of influence. We need to really make a robust challenge to the existing status quo, which tells us that we need growth, we need to increase consumption, and we need to accumulate stuff. Like we not only need to challenge government decisions, we need to challenge like our friends and our family about the choices they’re making and the ideas and the myths sometimes of which they’re so attached to. So we need to be willing to go, move outside our own comfortable existence. Of course, I speak is a very privileged person.
At the core, I think we need to develop a more human understanding person-to-person across those divisions in society and in international borders and so on. To understand that we have shared values, shared space of this planet and it’s the only one that we have. Anyone who speculates that we might just move on someone else’s is probably a little too optimistic.
We need people to understand, especially people in privileged position that there is actually value in caring for the people who are on the margins. Making the world better for everybody not just for us, not just for you know my family or my friends. It’s actually expanding what we care about beyond our little groups, beyond our social groups, beyond our national border. The solutions will not really happen if people in positions of privilege are willing to recognize that the way that they’re privileged is not fair and for them to be privileged, other people have to lose out. When you realize that then you can start to bring yourself to a position where you say oh I don’t need all these things and how can I be happy if other people are not happy. When we start to do that we start to humanize each other, we start to humanize the most marginalized in society.
Nerina: If you had the power and if it would be possible is there one thing that you would like to change tomorrow?
Jason: Oh wow. I would like to change the behavior of people that exercise power over other people in a negative way and change their behavior… change their mindset so that they understand that actually there are alternative futures. There’s a different way to do things where we can set up a society which functions well around shared values and around respect for each other, you know, around love, around trust and that’s actually powerful as well. If enough people come together around those values we can have a different society, but as long as the way that society is constructed is based on an oppressive type of power, like power over others I think that it’s going to be very difficult to resist that. Because a lot of times people become very obsessed with taking over the power, but as we’ve seen through history many times when a really revolutionary movement or individuals take power, they just end up oppressing other people.
I think there’s a problem with how we use power in the world and if there one thing I could change it would be to eradicate that behavior and that ideology of using power oppressively.
Nerina: What drives you? What motivates you?
Jason: I have five children you know quite young. When I got into this field when I started to read broadly and really understood the gravity of our situation with my limited understanding of science you have to think of the future. You have to think like what is the world going to be like for my kids or for their kids. The thing that motivates me is the concern of course for my children, but also all of the positive things that I see happening around the world.
The more that I meet people who are really on the frontline of the fight against injustice I realize there are more people than I thought that really want a better future. What gives me hope is that the majority of people do want a better future; they do want a future which is sustainable. The majority of us want a planet where our kids will be healthy and will be able to enjoy life.
Nerina: What is your dream?
Jason: My dream is that the people who are trying to build change movements are successful and actually reach enough people to generate the power of the masses to say the world we want to live in is very different than what we have. So we’re going to dismantle the status quo and we’re going to build something different.
Nerina: Thank you so much, Jason, for this conversation.
Jason: You’re very welcome. Thanks for the opportunity to speak to you Nerina.
Jason von Meding, senior lecturer in Disaster Risk reduction is making a movie: Deviate. Disasters are not natural.
We spoke with him about his motivation, the purpose of the movie, some myths about disasters, the challenges, and the experiences during the shooting in Vietnam.