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Disaster and the Politics of Intervention

Edited by Andrew Lakoff

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Paper, 160 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-14697-5
$18.00 / £12.50

May, 2010
Cloth, 160 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-14696-8
$55.00 / £38.00

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Andrew Lakoff

"It’s laissez-faire until you get in deep shit."— John Gutfreund, former CEO of Salomon Brothers

In late October 2007, a series of wildfires raged uncontrollably in Southern California, surrounding the suburbs of Los Angeles and San Diego and moving rapidly toward the urban core of San Diego. Over half a million residents were evacuated from their homes, a federal emergency was declared, the U.S. Marines and National Guard were mobilized, and President Bush flew to the region to demonstrate the government’s commitment to those in need. A combustible mixture of gusting winds, heat, and stores of dry brush was blamed for the conflagration. But as a number of commentators noted, the magnitude of the disaster could not be attributed solely to these forces of nature. The scale of the firestorm also pointed to the San Diego region’s failure to enact regulatory measures or devote public resources that would mitigate wildfire risk. The region’s politicians had been unwilling to implement zoning regulations to stem rapid housing development into the parched backcountry where fire risk was especially high. And San Diego voters had declined to fund improvement to the city’s strapped fire department, even in the wake of catastrophic wildfires that had swept through San Diego County four years earlier.

A relatively minor but telling episode during the 2007 fires pointed to a central issue in this volume: the role of public-sector intervention in mitigating the risk of catastrophe. As local firefighters, overwhelmed by the firestorm, awaited assistance from other regions, the "Wildfire Protection Unit" of American International Group Inc. (AIG) passed through barricades to protect specific properties in the wealthy northern suburbs of San Diego — those houses belonging to members of AIG’s Private Client Group, for which membership cost an average of $19,000 per year. Whether the flames would destroy the homes of area residents thus potentially depended on how much they had paid for private insurance — a throwback to the nineteenth century, before governments took on the responsibility of firefighting in the United States.

AIG would, of course, become infamous a year later, when it found itself at the center of another conflagration. This time the disaster was far more widespread: a global financial crisis whose scale and catastrophic potential outstripped the worst scenarios envisioned by economic planners. The insurance giant’s reckless entry into the under-regulated market for mortgage-backed securities was widely cited as one source of the financial system’s calamitous failure. Analogies were made to the great crash of 1929. Some analysts suggested that the nation — and the world — was facing a period of economic decline that would rival the Great Depression. Government officials worked feverishly to assuage an anxious public and to enact regulatory reforms and stimulus measures to keep the financial firestorm from spreading. Soon after inheriting this crisis, newly inaugurated President Barack Obama warned that a failure to act boldly could "turn crisis into catastrophe." But according to what norms would new regulations to protect against catastrophe be developed? And what kind of institution could be created that would have the power to monitor and intervene in potential financial disaster across the globe?

Such questions were salient across multiple domains — not only to the financial system, but also to environmental, health, and security risks. Indeed, the first decade of the twenty-first century was punctuated by a series of domestic and international emergencies, each of which challenged extant means of governmental intervention. To list a few of the most visible such events: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the anthrax letters that followed; the 2004 tsunami that devastated huge areas of south and Southeast Asia; the flooding of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005; and ongoing calamities, such as the intensifying AIDS pandemic in the global South and the brutal conflict in Darfur, that continued to provoke calls for urgent intervention.

These domestic and international emergencies of the new millennium were quite disparate in cause, geographic reach, and temporal frame. However, their juxtaposition highlights certain features of the contemporary politics of intervention into disaster. First, in each case the onset of an "emergency" situation made it possible to galvanize governmental response — whereas earlier proposals for preventive measures could not muster political support. Second, the perceived failures of governments to prevent or adequately prepare for these events generated their own political crises. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, for example, the Department of Homeland Security’s slow and poorly organized response played a major role in the decline of the Bush administration’s public legitimacy. And third, there were vocal disagreements among experts both over the appropriate measures for managing these emergencies and over the locus of responsibility for implementing such measures.

The issue of the management of catastrophic risk is linked to broader current debates over the relative roles of the state, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in ensuring collective security. This volume seeks to contribute findings from recent social scientific research to such discussions. It is part of the Social Science Research Council’s project on "The Privatization of Risk," led by Craig Calhoun and Jacob Hacker. The project considers the ways in which the distribution and management of collective risks has changed over recent decades. It analyzes the social and economic effects of efforts to replace public institutions with market mechanisms, shifting the burden of risk to those without substantial private wealth.

The term "disaster" does not connote a unified field of events. Just to take two examples from this volume: a catastrophic natural disaster and the prospect of global warming obviously call for different types of interventions, given their different scales and temporalities. An acute emergency demands immediate stabilization in a specific area, whereas the prospect of gradual — if calamitous — environmental transformation points toward prudent regulatory intervention on a global scale. However, juxtaposing these disparate kinds of events calls attention to the political stakes involved in understanding an event — or potential event — as a disaster.

There is a paradox inherent to the use of the term "disaster." On the one hand, it can bring public attention and resources to bear on a situation that "normal" circumstances cannot, even when such normalcy involves intense suffering. This has to do with the sense — from the old notion of an "act of God" — that a disaster could not have been avoided, that it was not foreseeable or preventable. Victims are not responsible for their suffering and thus are deserving of relief. On the other hand, since this attention and these resources are contingent on an acute temporality, the kinds of interventions implied by the notion of disaster are difficult to sustain in the long term. It is hard to generate political will to act in advance to avoid or to mitigate the effects of disasters. One question for the politics of intervention, then, is whether there are ways to take advantage of the attention and resources that "disasters" (whether in the present, as in wildfires, or in the future, as in climate change) galvanize while designing political technologies that diminish vulnerability and are sustainable in the long term.

Over the course of the twentieth century, governments played an increasing role in the management of collective risks — whether from natural disasters, outbreaks of infectious disease, or economic downturns. However, the increasing complexity and interdependence of systems for sustaining collective well-being as well as the emergence of risks deriving from modern technologies themselves have exceeded the capacities of many of the risk management practices initially developed in the industrial era. Such modernization risks include climate change, mass casualty terrorist attacks, international financial crises, and novel infectious diseases that have emerged as a result of ecological transformation. The challenge to risk management comes both from the difficulty of assessing the probability of unprecedented events within frameworks based on statistical calculation and from the temporal and spatial extent of the consequences of such events. In this context, governments face renewed uncertainty over the appropriate political and technical measures to mitigate the risk of disaster. As the sociologist Ulrich Beck writes, "We live in a world that has to make decisions concerning its future under the conditions of manufactured, self-inflicted insecurity."

The contributions to this volume focus on the political and technical challenges faced in governmental efforts to approach these new forms of catastrophic risk. The question is especially pressing in the case of threats whose probability is difficult or impossible to calculate, but whose consequences could be catastrophic. Such threats typically defy extant means of regulation both in terms of their incalculability and in terms of their scale. The essays ask how the category of catastrophic risk should be rethought in order to provide for more resilient critical systems and more sustainable practices of disaster management.

In her chapter, "Beyond Calculation: A Democratic Response to Risk," science studies scholar Sheila Jasanoff argues that contemporary catastrophic risks have escaped the control of technocratic managers and should be understood more broadly as a problem for democratic governance. She begins by noting a series of uncertainties that such risks raise for government: First, experts face analytic limits in assessing the impacts of potentially global catastrophes. Second, bureaucratic efforts to develop streamlined procedures elide the complexity of the settings in which such events take place. Third, the problem of responsibility is not easily settled: who should be protected and how should vulnerabilities be distributed? And finally, there is the question of how scarce resources for mitigation should be allocated. These issues indicate that adequate responses must be simultaneously technical and political. In response, Jasanoff advocates a form of democratic risk governance that is oriented not toward managerial control but toward building trust and transparency. She prescribes the development of "technologies of humility" that admit to the limits of expert calculation and thus are open to contribution from a public that has its own experiences and understandings of the potential for harm. Such technologies will, Jasanoff argues, be crucial to building resilience against future disasters.

An additional requirement for the governance of catastrophic risk is administrative durability. In the midst of crisis, political action may be galvanized, but in the absence of the event such urgency often fades. The struggle in the United States over the past three decades to define a coherent mission for and maintain a stable administrative apparatus of "emergency management" illustrates this difficulty. The roots of federal emergency management are in Cold War civil defense. Civil defense programs were initially designed to distribute responsibility across multiple levels of government: while the federal government played a coordinative role, local and regional agencies were expected to actively respond in the event of a nuclear attack. During the 1960s and 1970s, the field of emergency management expanded to include preparedness for and response to natural disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, and wildfires. Founded in 1979, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was organized as a central node in a distributed network, with a coordinative rather than a command role with respect to local response agencies. However, there were downsides to merging different functions in a coordinative agency. Ensuring the collaborative operation of disparate entities — police and fire, public health, charities, and so forth — has been an ongoing challenge in organizing emergency response.

Moreover, the combined mission of emergency management has generated difficulties. As public administration scholar Patrick Roberts shows in his essay, "Private Choices, Public Harms: The Evolution of National Disaster Organizations in the United States," the tension between civil defense goals and the demand for natural disaster preparedness has been a continuous problem for federal emergency management. Roberts points out that the Department of Homeland Security’s initial focus on terrorism prevention rather than "all hazards" preparedness was one source of its failure to respond adequately to Hurricane Katrina. Roberts argues that a key factor in creating a functioning emergency management apparatus at the federal level will be defining a coherent strategy for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). He suggests that the DHS should focus its mission on preparedness for and response to multiple hazards rather than on terrorism prevention alone.

As Roberts notes, the Bush administration’s use of contractors rather than government employees to provide public services, based on an ethos of market-driven solutions to public problems, hampered the DHS’s ability to mount a coherent response to Hurricane Katrina. The scandal provoked by the failed response to Katrina indicates that, at least at the national level, there is agreement about the necessity of a strong governmental role in protecting against disaster.

However, whatever political consensus there is on the responsibility of the government for managing emergencies breaks down when the scale of response extends from the local and national to the global. On the one hand, global interconnection via circuits of communication and transportation means that the question of responsibility for managing disasters must be posed at a transnational scale. This is exemplified by the prominent role of the U.S. military, alongside philanthropic organizations and NGOs, in responding to humanitarian disasters, such as the Asian tsunami, refugee crises linked to military conflicts, and the global AIDS pandemic. On the other hand, it is unclear how lines of responsibility among these diverse organizations should be drawn. How should state and multilateral agencies govern events that do not easily fall into existing purviews — both of jurisdictional responsibility and of technical capacity?

The problems faced by domestic emergency management — such as the locus of responsibility for dealing with crises and the difficulty of engaging in sustained intervention — are heightened in a global context. As the recent global financial crisis illustrates, political and technical mechanisms for managing risks that outstrip national boundaries have not yet been established. Two chapters in this volume — one on complex humanitarian emergencies and the other on the global AIDS crisis — address the issue of developing measures to intervene in disasters taking place in settings in which the nation-state apparatus is either unable or unwilling to protect the welfare of its citizens. These chapters do not aim to denounce the global political and economic system in which such suffering is allowed to take place (though their authors might well take such a position if queried); rather they propose modest practical interventions to address specific needs.

Complex humanitarian disasters are situations characterized by massive political disruption and by the absence of functioning welfare institutions. In these situations, refugees from political violence face the combined scourges of physical dislocation, hunger, disease, and the threat of further violence. Non-governmental organizations and multilateral agencies have sought to fill the void of state protection to provide humanitarian relief — food, medicine, and shelter — to refugees. However, the intervention of these organizations is premised on the short duration of the emergency situation. They do not have the institutional mechanisms to secure the well-being of the population over the long term. And yet these seemingly acute emergencies whose source is political instability have become chronic in many parts of the world.

Among the many problems that humanitarian NGOs face in approaching these situations of large-scale human suffering and violent conflict is the issue of providing security for their employees against armed attacks. Here we find another setting in which private-sector entities have substituted, in halting and often insufficient ways, for public agencies in mitigating disaster risk. In his chapter, "Strange Brew: Private Military Contractors and Humanitarians," security analyst P. W. Singer analyzes the increasing dependence of humanitarian NGOs on private military contractors to provide security in situations in which state-based military and police forces are either not present or ineffective. The central role played by private military firms in these settings — one mostly unacknowledged by humanitarian organizations — poses problems of accountability and responsibility. What rules should govern the actions of private military firms in such contexts? Singer argues that given their dependence on such arrangements for the foreseeable future, humanitarian NGOs must work to develop norms and protocols that can regulate these problematic interventions.

Philanthropic and multilateral responses to the global AIDS pandemic similarly raise questions of responsibility for managing emergency situations over an indefinite period. As it has intensified in the global South, the human suffering and social collapse caused by the pandemic have led to a medical humanitarian movement to provide access to antiretroviral drugs that would otherwise be unaffordable to patients. However, since the survival of HIV-positive patients requires the lifelong provision of medication, the long-term sustainability of this form of intervention is in question. This points in a stark way to the issue of the relation between the private and public sectors in responding to emergencies: at what moments, and in what ways, should intellectual property laws be suspended or rewritten to ensure that treatment can be offered in the event of public health emergencies?

As legal scholar Heinz Klug notes in his contribution to the volume, "Risking Health: HIV/AIDS and the Problem of Access to Essential Medicines," the market-based system in which advanced pharmaceuticals are developed and distributed is badly suited to the provision of long-term treatment for life-threatening disease in resource-poor settings. Meanwhile, the multilateral and philanthropic organizations that have sought to meet the demand for affordable drugs do not have the means to do so over the lifetimes of those suffering from the disease. Again, the temporality of emergency intervention — in this case, the provision of medication access — does not suffice for the provision of long-term welfare. In response to the AIDS crisis, Klug prescribes specific changes to intellectual property law that would enable the development of a generics industry that could provide the next-generation of therapies to poor countries that lack pharmaceutical production capacity. What Klug proposes is, then, the design of concrete and carefully targeted administrative techniques — in this case, a change in the legal regime — that could transform the modality of emergency intervention so that it is sustainable over the long term.

The threat of anthropogenic climate change obviously differs from these current humanitarian disasters in a number of ways, including the extent to which its impact has not yet been felt and indeed remains uncertain. Climate change is a potential disaster unfolding in slow motion. It shares with these other disasters, however, the problem of designing technical and political instruments that can extend across national boundaries and govern the actions of diverse institutional actors. Mitigating the risk of climate change would require transnational cooperation and the ability to regulate the activities of powerful private-sector actors. For these reasons, despite consensus among scientists on the danger, it remains profoundly difficult to build political consensus for a plan that could plausibly mitigate catastrophic risk.

The case of climate change thus raises the question of whether collective action across political boundaries can be generated in advance of an impending catastrophe. Are governments willing or able to make decisions that might sacrifice economic growth in the name of intervening in a potential disaster? And if not, are there ways to design technical interventions that are politically feasible — given that, for example, a carbon tax might not be? In his chapter, "Constructing Carbon Markets: Learning from Experiments in the Technopolitics of Emissions Trading Schemes," sociologist Donald MacKenzie addresses the question of how state agencies might forge market devices that would create incentives to effectively mitigate climate risks. MacKenzie analyzes how the technical and political challenges of dealing with greenhouse-gas emissions have been handled in the European Union’s incipient carbon trading system.

Specifically, MacKenzie describes the operation of a "cap-and-trade" system, currently functioning in Europe and under consideration in the United States and elsewhere. Since the EU program is a possible model for the rest of the world, it is an important experiment in considering what it would take to implement such a system on a larger scale. The chapter points to the need to reflect carefully about how to construct an emissions market in order to increase its likelihood of success. MacKenzie shows that such success will hinge on specific details of market design: thus, for example, the decision on whether to initially give away or to auction emission credits will have an enormous impact on the eventual viability of a carbon trading market. More generally, from this analysis of the challenges involved in building a functioning capand-trade system, we can see the importance of careful reflection on the design of regulatory interventions.

In closing, it is worth pointing to the ways that the social scientific inquiries in this volume provide broader guidance about the appropriate role of government in the management of catastrophic risk. For the most part, the chapters to follow do not focus on removing the sources of risk; rather, they emphasize the design of mechanisms that can mitigate it. They propose practical approaches rather than overarching theoretical visions. To deal with current or impending disasters, they prescribe targeted interventions that, it is hoped, will be technically feasible and can work within existing political constraints. Despite this modesty of purpose, it is possible to glean from these contributions a more general set of guideposts for intervening in potential and actual disasters.

One insight that emerges from these chapters is that managing catastrophic risk will require the development of new regulatory norms and new organizational forms. For example, while it is clear that purely market-based approaches cannot be depended upon to provide collective health and security, it may be that market experiments in combination with government regulation can be part of a broad effort to create sustainable practices of collective security. Thus, for example, Klug proposes a flexible patent regime that is as much focused on the provision of medicines as a necessary part of public health as it is on ensuring that biomedical innovation is encouraged. And MacKenzie points toward the design of a carbon emissions trading scheme that has the potential to be both politically feasible and technically efficacious.

A more general suggestion about regulatory norms comes from the current response to the global financial crisis. The deregulation of the financial industry is widely blamed for inciting the spiral of events that has threatened the viability of the global financial system. While it remains to be seen precisely what this crisis will mean for the future role of government in managing catastrophic risk, one possibility is that the event will, retrospectively, be seen as the bookend on a period in which the "privatization of risk" was a dominant policy ideal. What norms are now being proposed in the wake of the apparent failure of deregulation? If there is agreement that a lack of regulation was one cause of the crisis, what principles will guide the enactment of new regulatory measures? And if there is also consensus that such regulations would have to extend beyond the boundaries of the nation-state, what global institutions will be charged with implementing and enforcing them?

A prime candidate for the target of new regulations is "systemic risk." This term alludes to the interdependence of the heterogeneous elements of a sociotechnical system. In the context of finance, it refers to the regulatory problem posed by the existence of firms whose failure could provoke a collapse of the entire system. The existence of such systemic risks, most political actors now agree, demands measures above and beyond existing ways of regulating finance. However, in the vision of reformers, such regulation should not fundamentally transform the structure of the system or even slow its functioning. Rather, it should provide the system with "resilience" against unexpected shocks. The salience of these terms — systemic risk as the target of regulation and resilience as its goal — can potentially be extended beyond the domain of finance into the other arenas of risk that are discussed in this volume: large-scale natural disasters, pandemic disease, climate change, and humanitarian emergency. From each chapter, one draws suggestions on the design of sustainable technical and political instruments that can help develop resilience against unexpected and potentially catastrophic events.


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About the Author

Andrew Lakoff is associate professor of anthropology, sociology and communication at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Pharmaceutical Reason: Knowledge and Value in Global Psychiatry, and coeditor, with Stephen J. Collier, of Biosecurity Interventions: Global Health and Security in Question. His current research concerns the intersection between global health and national security in the development of approaches to new biological and environmental threats.

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