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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2016

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Our Hazardous Environment: Four Decades of Progress or Retrenchment?

With this issue of Environment we begin a new feature for the magazine. Our intent is to reproduce seminal articles that helped define a field of study or offered alternative explorations of new ideas, and then ask leading figures in the field to reflect on the significance of the articles from today's vantage point. We begin with the series of articles published in 1978 under the heading “Our Hazardous Environment” with Christoph Hohenemser and Robert W. Kates as the series editors.

This series (represented by the lead article reprinted in this issue and the follow-up articles published online) combines perspectives from risk assessment (most often applied to hazards arising from technology) and hazards management (what risks to accept, which ones to reduce, what range of adjustments to employ to limit exposure). Until these articles appeared, most of the hazards research (at least within the discipline of geography) was focused on natural hazards that originated in atmospheric, hydrological, geophysical, or biological processes—floods, earthquakes, tropical cyclones, infestations. “Our Hazardous Environment” highlighted the increasing significance of hazards originating in societal processes (the use or misuse of technology and/or failures in technologic systems) and added a new term to our lexicon, technological hazards. While learning from natural hazards, technological hazards posed a different set of challenges because society and its institutions were at fault and could be held accountable for failures, especially the social costs (property damage, loss of productivity, mortality and morbidity), as well as the consequences and efforts to manage the consequences. The perception and acceptance of these risks were different than for natural hazards. The shift into technology as hazard appealed to many researchers at the time—especially those increasingly engaged with the environmental movement. But when the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island happened 6 months later (March 1979), the field of technological hazards came of age and anchored the continuum of hazards research that began in the natural world.

The integration of interdisciplinary perspectives from psychology, operations research, and economics, among others, provided a methodological rigor to understanding how safe was safe enough and stimulated a broader field of integrated science, risk assessment. As a newly minted assistant professor with broad environmental interests and familiarity with the tradition of natural hazards at the University of Chicago (my alma mater), to me a more quantitative approach to broader societal and environmental issues arising from technological choices and their management appealed as a perfect area for research. Understanding the concepts of perceived risk and actual risk, causal chain impacts and analyses, and the ways in which these shaped the public agenda and acceptability judgments, as well as governance structures for technological hazards, became the starting point for me in examining the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. The foundation for my own career began with these articles (and of course Three Mile Island), but then later focused on toxic releases and questions of equity.

The series helped stimulate an even broader multidisciplinary community in risk and its management and directly led (in my estimation) to the creation of the Society for Risk Analysis (1983), where scholarly and practitioner interests were melded. Risk assessment and hazards management are transdisciplinary sciences. They co-evolved from an interest in socially relevant problems, and created new knowledge co-produced from multiple disciplines and from interactions between scientists, practitioners, and the public. Sophisticated analytical methods were transferred and transformed by these interdisciplinary collaborations. As the hazards of modern society changed from nuclear power plant accidents to toxic releases to synthetic chemicals in the environment to genetically modified food, the transdisciplinary science grew, added a policy and regulatory dimension, and expanded beyond the North American core of interest.

As time passed, technology was viewed less as the “culprit” and instead it was human activities that began to be seen as producing the risks, as natural resources including fossil fuels were rapidly being consumed for increased development, and the planet was rapidly losing its ability to sustain the quality of life that the developed world demanded and that the developing world aspired to. The by-products of such excessive consumption of natural resources depleted water supply resources, increased carbon emissions into the atmosphere, and destroyed vast forest resources. The refocusing on broader themes of planetary sustainability led to the evolution of a second transdisciplinary field, sustainability science, that had its origins in the hazards and risk management, as Fischhoff mentions in his commentary.

During the past three-plus decades, many of the original constructs in the 1978 papers underwent rapid transformation as researchers became more sympathetic to public inputs and recognized that the public's perception of risk was not wrong (as many experts had determined)—it was just based on a different set of heuristics, which were equally valid, just not as easily measured (as Slovic points out). Differing management alternatives were proposed, including those involving insurance as a mechanism for sharing losses. Yet as Kunreuther explains with many of the themes in the early publications—perceived risk and actual risk, acceptability judgments, and the myopia that pervades and influences hazard management choices—we are no closer to reducing flood risk today than we were decades ago. We know what to do and how to do it but simply do not have the political will to do so.

The context of our hazardous environment in creating and fostering the Risk Society (Ulrich Beck's classic book) has moved our understanding of management into the arena of risk governance, where multiple and cascading failures of technological systems from a wide variety of causal mechanisms underscore the vast dependencies and interconnectedness of modern society. The reflexive nature of the risk society—simultaneous roles as risk producer and risk manager—has led to brittleness in our risk institutions. The inability of risk institutions and infrastructures to adapt, learn, and change in the face of rapid transformations in both risk and its drivers does not bode well for the future, especially as new risks emerge.

While we have advanced the science and practice of risk assessment and hazards management, and added sustainability science to our scientific thesaurus, I wonder whether we have really made any real progress in reducing our hazardous environment. Climate change is the most universal threat to the global commons, yet there are those in positions of power who deny its existence as a threat. There is no agreement on mitigating impacts, and adaptation strategies will fall short, especially as many communities have already borne the brunt of major environmental changes, especially those in the northern ice zones. Tropical cyclones of increasing intensity continue to hammer island nations in Asia, 1,000-year rainfall events produce catastrophic flooding in the United States, and drought-stricken areas of Africa and central Asia continue without any signs of relief. The enormous social changes arising from armed conflict in the Middle East and the massive out-migrations to other regions (especially Europe) are also contributing to increasing hazardousness and will place additional social and environmental burdens on host countries responding to this present humanitarian crisis. Despite the best science, creativity, and ingenuity, and nearly four decades worth of reflection, we still do not possess the will to manage hazards in a sustainable and equitable manner. Because of this, the loss escalator will continue to go up, and it will be the poorest and the most vulnerable populations among us who will suffer the most from our hazardous environment.

—Susan L. Cutter

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