Disasters—man-made and natural—are a rising threat. Why aren't we better prepared?
“Luck favors the prepared mind,” says Lee Clarke, a professor in the Department of Sociology within the School of Arts and Sciences. He is not referring specifically to jihadists or climate change or an oil spill or a runaway plague or the failure of a major metropolitan electrical grid or an earthquake followed by a tsunami followed by massive flooding. Clarke is referring to all of them.
“My central argument is that our organizations often overpromise what they can control, promising to control the uncontrollable. We assume we’re safer than we probably are,” says Clarke. “It’s not up to me, as a scholar, to prescribe how society should run. But one of my central conclusions is that we not sleepwalk into these risks.
“We need oil, and there’s a risk that we run,” he continues. “We can’t control hundreds of millions of gallons of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. Is that a risk we are willing to take? It might be, but let’s make the choice under as honest a condition as possible.”
In order to accomplish that, Clarke says we need to prepare from the top and from the bottom. The “top” would include organizations, corporations, and governments, which, in Clarke’s view, are not sufficiently motivated to prepare for disaster or climate change or terrorism. Citizens could demand that society’s leaders use more resources in anticipating and planning for disasters rather than simply reacting to them. Or, in most cases, litigating their way out of them.
The “bottom” would include the rest of us. With decades of empirical analysis and scholarship behind him, Clarke puts the onus—or the responsibility—on ordinary human beings, whose behavior in times of crises, he believes, is cause to be more hopeful than is generally acknowledged. For one thing, the observation that individuals are likely to panic during disasters and behave selfishly is in most cases wrong, says Clarke. Look at 9/11. Look at the Oklahoma City bombing. Look at Hurricane Sandy. Altruism at every turn. For another, we underestimate what citizens are capable of in extreme situations. When a disaster occurs, those in uniform—police, firefighters, and EMTs—are not in reality the first responders. The first responder is the person sitting next to you, says Clarke. Teachers and airline passengers and fellow marathon runners often turn out to be the first heroes.
After receiving a doctorate in sociology from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook in 1985, Clarke got involved in a research project to investigate how bureaucracies respond to crises (not well, he discovered). Following in the footsteps of a mentor at SUNY, Clarke directed his career at studying the sociology of disaster. A professor at Rutgers since 1988, he is the author of six books on the subject, most notably Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2005).
In his books and research, Clarke posits “possibilistic thinking,” an idea that has made him unpopular in some circles. He has been painted as an alarmist by those who favor “probabilistic thinking,” which argues that decisions ought to be made based on what is likely to happen, not what could happen. Clarke says that his theory is offered as a complement to probability theory, and that, in any case, we indulge in possibilistic thinking all the time. That’s why there is life insurance; building codes so that structures can withstand earthquakes; oxygen masks on commercial jets.
“We have come to define rational choice in the modern day as according to probability theory in a quite literal way. I’m not interested in discarding probabilities; we can’t freak out at every risk. But let’s look at the possibilities, too. Both are important for preparedness.”
Yet, people are moving to cities and settling near oceans and rivers in unprecedented numbers, despite the vulnerability of these locations to natural and manmade disasters. Asked why we so often act against our own best interests by inviting unnecessary risk, Clarke cites New York University sociologist Harvey Molotch, who theorizes that the concept of private property is such an inviolable national right that even questioning it is “subversive.” So people settle wherever they want, and will not be dissuaded.
“Thus, we build in places that are naturally prone to floods and earthquakes,” says Clarke. “We put nuclear power plants near populated places, and trains carrying very toxic materials roll through our cities every day.” Acknowledging and planning for risk, he adds, can be expensive. And politically unpopular. So we bury our heads in the sand and hope for the best.
Outside of America, many populations don’t have a choice of where they live. Millions in the developing world live in vulnerable coastal regions or areas susceptible to drought or deluges. They have often been, and will continue to be, in the crosshairs of impending disasters. Indeed, Clarke makes the point that catastrophes disproportionately afflict the world’s poor. A recent example in the United States was Hurricane Katrina, which hit the poorest residents of New Orleans the hardest. In fact, the failure in preparedness surrounding Hurricane Katrina happens to be the subject of Clarke’s new book, which he is in the process of writing.
Clarke sees the prepared mind as inherently good news. “Both of these things—mental fortitude and supplies in the basement—are necessary. And that you, and your neighbor, can be counted on when Sandy comes again. I do see this as a positive view.” •