Vas Mathur / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. Emeritus Anthony Oliver-Smith, anthropology, University of Florida, explores ways to study natural disasters during a lecture on Wednesday.

March 16, 2018

Professor Challenges Conventional Ways of Studying Natural Disasters

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Environmental disasters must be studied and managed using a “holistic standpoint” that extends beyond an investigation of natural causes, said Prof. Emeritus Anthony Oliver-Smith, anthropology, University of Florida.

During the Wednesday lecture — part of the new Working Group on Disasters — Oliver-Smith explained that he and his team study the “social, economic, political, and cultural roots” of disasters to “take a much deeper look at what drives the construction of risks and of vulnerability and of disasters,” he said.

“Denaturalizing” natural disasters by looking beyond the geographical factors is integral to improving disaster risk analysis and management, according to Oliver-Smith.

“The high mortality and destruction that we experience is more [the] failures of society to adapt or protect,” Oliver-Smith said.  “The root causes of disaster lay more in inequality, subordination, and unequal resource distribution.”

Oliver-Smith advocated for a shift away from using the term ‘natural disasters,’ arguing that “we have to get away from the thinking that disasters are unavoidable natural phenomena.”

“Disasters are socially generated and constructed and we can do something to avoid them by reducing vulnerability, exposure and risk,” he said in an email to The Sun.

To reveal non-geographic causes of disasters, Oliver-Smith used retrospective longitudinal analysis, a research methodology that focuses on learning the history of a particular disaster site. Sara Davis grad, found the method to be particularly insightful.

“Often with development or with policy proposals, we try to fit the same recommendations to lots of different things,” she said, “Because societies have different histories, often that same proposal isn’t helpful.”

Davis believes retrospective longitudinal analysis will help reduce current confusion in risk analysis and allow the formation of more specific and targeted management strategies.

Oliver-Smith also raised concerns that while “the [interdisciplinary] knowledge has existed for a long time,” the “general acceptance and extension throughout the larger research and policy community is slow.”

As such, the next step forward would be to apply the research findings in real life, such as by reflecting new disaster management research in construction codes.

“Risk reduction or construction has to be legally embedded in those codes that construction has to follow,” he said.

Referencing the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Oliver-Smith discussed the factors that led the devastation of the island nationn. He talked about the transatlantic slave trade, debt Haiti had to pay to France and more recently, international pressures as root causes.

“The recent political-economic history of Haiti, is such that international economics in the form of the international monetary fund, free trade, and the lower of tariffs, in effect destroyed rural life in Haiti,” he said.

The “undermining of pillars of the rural economy” prompted many to migrate to cities which were ill-equipped, acording to Oliver-Smith.

“This led to a massive migration to the cities like Port-au-Prince, which were unable to cope with and serve this massive migration. These people began to be living in extremely vulnerable circumstances, extremely exposed circumstances.”

Root cause analysis is useful for identifying “risk drivers” that put people in danger during a disaster Oliver-Smith concluded.

“What happened in Haiti was not just an earthquake, it was an outcome of very recent processes and very historical processes that had nothing to do with natural resources,” he said.