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Talking about disasters

9 March 2020
By Susan Wyndham, SSSHARC Journalist in Residence
Fire and flood, drought and pollution, mining and water rights were among many topics covered at a global symposium on environmental disasters, supported by the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC) in November 2019.

Whatever the devastating effects, the causes are complex, and many speakers raised the same underlying problems: the legacy of colonisation, disrespect for Indigenous cultures, neoliberal government policies, corporatisation, and reliance on fossil fuels.

Solutions need to be long-term, collaborative and philosophical as well as improved responses to emergencies, they agreed.

“I’m trying to unsettle the idea of a disaster as an event with a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s a process,” said Dr Jennifer Lawrence, speaking onscreen from the US via Zoom.

The daughter of an Appalachian coal miner who died of black lung, she is doing postdoctoral research at Virginia Tech into disasters such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and rising sea in the Mississippi Delta, hastened by construction and fuel extraction, which has uprooted the first Native American climate refugees.

Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Mexico Gulf, 2010

Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Mexico Gulf, 2010

Clean-up processes themselves can be disastrous, she said, as when chemical dispersants make oil more toxic or workers without protective clothing suffer life-threatening illness.

Lawrence argued that “the conditions of production underlie the event and the idea that an event can be remediated sanitises the disaster and allays public anxiety. But failing to address the underlying chronic conditions perpetuates the likelihood of disaster events.”

Locals are the experts

Dr Francisco Molina Camacho’s research on the Indigenous desert community of Chiu-Chiu in northern Chile focused on the 1981 Water Code that means “you can buy and sell water as you can any goods. You can have land without water and water without land. Mining companies own water that should be Chilean.”

An “activist-scholar” based in Santiago, Camacho was detained there by public protests and also addressed the symposium via Zoom. Although Chile has signed the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 aimed at consultation with Indigenous people about land use, “it doesn’t have the power to override the constitution written in 1980”.

However, he said, “young people are finding new ways to fight for their land”. As lawyers and musicians, for example, they combine legal skills with ancestral knowledge to bond communities and start official dialogues. He concluded: “Local groups are the experts now. We have failed. We must listen to them.”

Calls for better consultation with Indigenous communities also came from Emerson Sanchez (University of Canberra), whose PhD research is on the politics of mining in the Philippines, and Christine Winter (University of Sydney), who argued that Western philosophy “has forged a divorce from nature” compared with Maori practices and protocols based on the idea that “we must care for the land and pass it on to future generations in better condition. Nothing can release them from those obligations.”

Many constructive ideas were presented at the two-day symposium by almost 20 academic speakers in disciplines including law, engineering, political economy, government and international justice. They came physically and virtually from universities in North and South America, Africa and Australia.

Participants at The Environmental Disasters 2019 Symposium

Participants at The Environmental Disasters 2019 Symposium held in November 2019. Photo credit: Sydney Environment Institute

Bushfires cause existential insecurity

From an Australian perspective, Gemma Viney (University of Sydney) has interviewed Gomeroi and farming communities in north-west NSW about how they have put aside their historical conflict to unite against gas and coal mining companies.

Submissions to the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment explained how both groups were deeply connected to their land: “[This] is a place where our Lore is living and breathing, of and within the land. We are of that land.” “We are not extremists. We are not radicals. We are farmers, who want to protect our land and our livelihood.”

David Schlosberg (Sydney Environment Institute) reported on his research team’s interviews with Blue Mountains residents who suffered loss in a major bushfire in 2013.

“Shock events damage the sense of place,” he said, proposing that disruption of attachment to place and resulting grief and social problems should be treated as an injustice. “The law is only starting to think about solastalgia.”

The people interviewed in 2018 “had experience and stories of previous fires in the Blue Mountains, but this was different,” Schlosberg said. “They had lost homes, pets, livelihood and wellbeing. People talked about the inability of rebuilding to regain that sense of attachment. They had an existential insecurity."

Moments of heightened political possibility

On an evening when Sydney’s air was already smoky from the bushfires that would destroy much of Australia’s east coast, several of the symposium speakers addressed a Sydney Ideas public event, “Who should govern environmental disasters, and how?”

Introducing them, Abbas El-zein, Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of Sydney, noted there were at the same time floods in Europe, air pollution in Delhi and less visible disasters around the world.

“There’s no such thing as a natural disaster,” he said. Rather, unequal distribution of risk, resources and power turn natural hazards into human and environmental tragedy. But disasters can also present “moments of heightened political possibility”, as when the tsunami that hit Aceh in 2004 led to the end of civil war.

Tsunami aftermath, Aceh, 2004

Tsunami aftermath, Aceh, 2004.

On the panel, Linda Hancock (Deakin University) and Susan Park (University of Sydney) laid out the scientific facts of climate change and the link between carbon and extreme weather events.

Australia is the third highest fossil fuel exporter after Russia and Saudi Arabia, said Hancock, responsible for 20 per cent of OECD fossil fuel exports on top of our own per capita emissions.

Climate justice cannot be left to governments with a lack of political will for change and entrenched interests that influence policy, she said, calling for a global forum that can penalise countries emitting over an agreed limit.

Scholars know that translating science to politics is a problem, said Park. Action only comes out of crises, “when the full effect of business as usual becomes too big to ignore, when science matches people’s lived experience”.

Park, who is a Professor in International Relations and symposium organiser, spoke about the main types of “grievance mechanisms” available to victims of environmental disasters. In the globalised economy development companies often enter communities at the invitation of governments, leading to a failure of regulation and accountability.

This has seen the rise of non-legal mechanisms and international bodies for redress, and a merging of environmental protection and human rights, though standards of efficacy and transparency often remain low.

“We need to look for features of the system that tend to cause repeated disaster,” Park said. She hopes to hold another gathering of social and natural scientists in 2020.

The Environmental Disasters 2019 Symposium, organised by Professor Susan Park and the Sydney Environment Institute with funding from SSSHARC and the Office of Global Engagement, was held on November 21-22, 2019 at the RD Watt Building, the University of Sydney.

This article is part of the 2020 SSSHARC series on how the humanities and social sciences can help us see the world in new ways.

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham. Credit: Nicola Bailey.
Inaugural SSSHARC Journalist in Residence

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