The social history of natural disasters

Recent floods in Cumbria (UK) have been caused by record breaking rainfall (Cumbria deluge breaks historic rainfall record) due in part to unusually high temperatures, 4 degrees above the seasonal average. In one 24 hour period the rainfall has been 10% higher than what is normal for the whole month of November. The man-made built environment and infrastructures have simply not been able to cope. But the extreme weather and ensuing floods cannot be seen as a purely ‘natural’ disaster. Like many others in recent years, this disaster has had a long history in the making.

Over many hundreds of years the landscape of the Lake District has been changed by deforestation and the grazing of sheep. The Cistercian abbeys of Furness and Byland, followed by land enclosures in the 16th and 17thcenturies, exploited the area for wool production. The process of deforestation was accelerated by iron ore smelting and later by the extraction of lead and copper. The resulting transformation of the land over several centuries, particularly the removal of the original scrubland vegetation and trees, produced the Lakeland landscape as it is known and loved today. But this dramatically altered the hydrology of the land and its ability to slow down and absorb surface water. This is also part of the story of the flooding of Boscastle in Cornwall in the August 2004 which similarly suffered unusually high rainfall in the space of a few hours. Long run changes in farming practices in the area, particularly land usage and the reduction of trees and hedges were seen as contributory factors.

Coincidently, just as the flooding of Workington and Cockermouth were dominating the newspapers in the UK, the flooding of parts of New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is in the news again. A court hearing has ruled that Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flooding was not an act of God (Hurricane Katrina: It was not an act of God). The testimony of expert witnesses claimed that the danger of such a flood was acknowledged at least 17 years earlier and the responsibility for the devastation rested with policy failure and incompetent engineering and was as such avoidable. As for the hurricane itself it was not a 1 in a 100 year or even a 1 in 40 year storm and had not even been a direct hit.

In fact the history of flooding of New Orleans goes back to it founding in 1718 on swampland with a large proportion of the city below sea level and vulnerable to both sea surges and the flooding of the Mississippi basin. Since the growth of the city and the continual development of the Mississippi as a transport system with the rerouting of meanders and the cutting of channels for oil and gas installations the river has over the years lost the ability to deposit sediments and build up land around its mouth. It is estimated that over 2,300 square miles of the barrier islands and wetlands, the natural defence against storm surges and flooding, have already been lost. (Unnatural disaster Financial Times November 6 2009).

One way or another, adaptation to the environment has always been necessary aspect of human settlement. However, we seem to be entering a period of dramatic environmental change in which previous adaptations are becoming increasingly inadequate.

Expert knowledge and public policy

In May 2008 the then Home Secretary Jaqui Smith, against the recommendations of her own scientific advisers, reversed the government’s 2004 decision to downgrade cannabis to a class C drug, returning it to its previous status of class B. The reclassification came into effect January 2009. This reclassification caused controversy at the time but this has recently re-emerged with the publication of a paper by Professor Nutt who, until he was sacked last Friday, was chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. In the paper Nutt criticised the reclassification of cannabis and the government’s use of the precautionary principle to justify so doing. He claimed that by invoking the precautionary principle politicians had distorted and devalued the research evidence. In a recent appearance on BBC’s Question Time (Thursday 29th October) where Nutt’s paper was raised Smith again supported the use of the precautionary principle on the grounds that psychiatrists’ reports and police views on the development of new stronger types of cannabis indicate greater mental health risks. In the government’s judgement the trends in the increasing strength of cannabis and these reports indicate the possibility of health risks they are not prepared to take. The government’s responsibility is to make decisions and be accountable for them. Advisors are required only give to advice.

A number of interesting issues arise from this fracas. One key issue is the relationship between expert and scientific knowledge and the making of law and public policy. In his latest book, First as Tragedy, then as Farce, Zizek tells the story of how in 2007 in the Czech Republic a public debate raged about the proposed installation of US Army radars on Czech territory. Despite about 70% of the population not wanting this the government refused the demand for a referendum and allowed the installation of the radars to go ahead on the grounds that important decisions are not matters that can be decided by voting and that they should be left to the experts, in this case military experts on matters of National security. As Zizek observes, if this logic is carried to its conclusion what is there left to vote for? Should not economic decisions, for instance, be left to economic experts?

A related issue is that the nature of scientific knowledge is nearly always provisional. As most scientists would tell us, it is the best we have at the moment and is rarely certain. In addition, scientific knowledge is always partial in that it tends to focus on artificially separated and therefore ‘decontextualised’ aspects of the reality scientists are seeking to describe and understand. It is precisely because of this that the application of scientific and expert knowledge to social policy cannot be seen as some automatic translation of science into policy. The policy decision-making process has to allow for the provisional nature of scientific and expert knowledge and address the connecting and wider aspects of the policy making context that the scientific evidence does not address. This can be further complicated where there are competing accounts of the science within the scientific community, for instance apparent contradictions between laboratory findings and observations in the field.

As it happens, on the balance of the evidence and arguments as I understand them, I do not agree with the reclassification of cannabis and I do agree with the thrust of Nutt’s criticism of the current drug classification system and drug policy. However, the basis of his complaint that the scientific evidence has been distorted and devalued is problematic as this implies that without the alleged distortion the policy following on from the science would be self-evident. I think the government could have constructed discussable grounds for reclassifying cannabis and at the same time been perfectly respectful of the scientific evidence. The insistence that government has to take into account a range of other issues and considerations beyond the scientific evidence is correct.

On the other hand, I think Nutt’s sacking by the current Home Secretary ill advised and counter productive. Professor Nutt’s opinions and comments are valuable contributions to public understanding and debate, a debate the government should engage in intelligently and constructively. It would have been far better to engage in a public discussion of the various factors and other forms of evidence and opinion that went into the decision to reclassify cannabis. This would include the psychiatrist’s and police opinions and experience Smith alluded to in Question Time and a measured consideration of the views of social and health welfare professionals and those working in the front line of drug use and abuse. However, why this approach was not adopted by the government may have something to do with Lembit Opik’s charge made in the same Question Time discussion, that it the reclassification smacked of vote catching policy making intended to appeal to the readership of  the red tops. The history of government’s exercise of the precautionary principle demonstrates a somewhat cynical and selective attitude to its deployment. On what grounds was it not deployed by the Conservative government during the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis in the 80s and 90s? At the time the government made strenuous efforts to dismiss public fears and the views of experts on the possibility that BSE could be transmitted to humans. In 1995 John Major, Prime Minister at the time, based the government’s attitude and policy on the view that: “There is currently no scientific evidence that BSE can be transmitted to humans or that eating beef causes CJD in humans. That issue is not in question”. This was in the face of a great deal of evidence from scientists that this could not be discounted and was in fact probable. It is undoubtedly true that a variety of other forms of evidence, opinion and experience needs to provide a broader context to how scientific evidence is used in policy making. There are factors and issues that have to be considered that individual pieces of scientific knowledge do not, and by themselves cannot, address. However, it is hard to dismiss the possibility that the reactions of target voters and possible economic consequences will figure high in a government’s priorities. In fact it would be naïve to suppose otherwise.