Contents - Previous - Next
This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at http://unu.edu
Lack of willingness to act does not rank high among the problems that have frustrated coping with industrial surprises. In every case-study it is evident that a wide range of responses to these problems were tried - with varying degrees of success. Rarely are there examples of actions that were proposed but not attempted. It is not appropriate to repeat all the examples of actions taken that are reported in the case-studies. Instead, let us focus on one particularly significant category of responses - institutional changes.
Usually, institutional changes are believed to occur slowly. Changes in public policy are a good example. The development of public policy in modern bureaucratic states has been characterized as a process of disjointed incrementalism, whereby change occurs in irregular spurts and new policies are only marginally different from old ones. Policies also become integrated: separate policies with limited goals are gradually knitted together in pursuit of broader objectives. A typical sequence of policy development might begin with single-purpose/ single-means policies and end with multiplepurpose/multiple-means policies (White 1969). Nuclear power station policies are a good example. In more-developed countries, nuclear power stations were once designed as stand-alone fail-safe technologies largely under the control of plant operators. These measures are now routinely backed up by broad programmes of siting controls, emergency planning, and response that involve a great many governmental authorities and public organizations. Furthermore, the entire nuclear fuel cycle is becoming a basis for planning and management, rather than just the power station portion of the cycle. The mining and processing of reactor fuels, the diversion of spent fuels for use in nuclear weapons, and the storage of nuclear wastes are also parts of the management nexus. Similar trends toward broader, more integrated, policies are thought to be occurring in other fields of hazardous technology.
Virtually all the case-studies show that important institutional changes occurred, or were attempted, in the wake of the disasters. Some changes were formal and official; others were informal and unofficial. Among the former are post-Exxon Valdez initiatives such as the Ceres Principles (a set of environmental guidelines for business); a pathbreaking piece of pollutioncontrol legislation (the Oil Pollution Act of 1990) that led in turn to other innovations, such as a new national oil-spill clean-up organization established by the US petroleum industry; and record monetary awards made to plaintiffs in legal actions against the Exxon oil company. Other formal institutional changes include the European Community's Seveso Directive, precedentsetting legal decisions about the jurisdiction of courts in one country (the United States) over industrial accidents that occur in another (India), and the creation of a national disaster-management institute at Bhopal. Chernobyl's disaster enhanced the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency as a monitor of reactor safety and nuclear security. It spurred the creation of a plethora of governmental and non-governmental organizations in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. It also highlighted the issue of secrecy and openness of nuclear facilities to international inspections - an issue that subsequently assumed great prominence in diplomatic relations between the United States and the governments of Iraq and North Korea (e.g. 1992 Gulf War; 1994 crisis over North Korean nuclear weapons).
Informal institutional changes were also significant. The Minamata disaster provoked a breakdown in long-established traditions of mutual aid among neighbours and gave an unprecedented stimulus to grass-roots environmental activism in Japan, which ushered in a period of national soul-searching about the costs of unrestrained economic development. As in Minamata, citizen protest movements emerged in Centralia, although their efforts were less successful there. Information about institutional changes in Iraq is sparse, but the fact that housing reconstruction was largely exempted from central government control indicates that wartime disaster forced some modification of a highly centralized state policy-making and administration apparatus.
Despite these reforms, the growing catalogue of industrial disaster surprises shows that the limits of emerging broader policies are clearly being tested and found wanting. Moreover, the types of issues that are being raised by surprises are difficult to address within the context of existing policies and programmes. This may be the very reason why institutional reforms and innovations continue to blossom in the wake of the case-study disasters! The fact that existing industrial disaster policies are not sufficiently broad to take account of vital issues is illustrated in all the case-studies.
In every case, actions to cope with surprise have become caught up in paradoxes that signal the limitations of existing public policies and imply a need to find alternatives that address broader contexts of decision-making. In Minamata, a bedrock community myth of "shared destiny" between the city's main corporate employer and the residents blocked many efforts to improve the recovery process. In Centralia, existing disaster policies have resolved the hazard by extinguishing the community; the operation was successful but the patient died! A more enlightened policy would try to avoid such Draconian alternatives. In Seveso it is clear that the very policy that produced a more or less successful response carries within it the seeds of future failures. The conditions that made for successful recovery from one airborne release of dioxin possibly cannot be replicated in the "improved" regulatory system that was developed after the disaster. In the Bhopal case, a dominant institution (e.g. a multinational corporation) has been shown to be vulnerable to the disaster that it inflicted on a local public. Taken together, Chernobyl and the Iran-Iraq war raise questions at opposite poles in a debate about the appropriate scale for formulating public policy. Chernobyl underscores the limitations of national and multinational political-economic restructuring as a panacea for local socio-environmental ills. Here, the kind of decentralized decision-making about risky technologies that might reduce the likelihood of future disasters may also hinder the management of any large-scale disasters that slip through the safety net. Yet Iran's record of recovery from war with Iraq suggests that the same lesson can operate in reverse - central governments may be the only institutions capable of articulating and carrying through policies for devastated local communities. Finally, the Exxon Valdez experience suggests that the procedures of a legal system that is dedicated to administering justice may require that scientists make no public statements about their research in the wake of disaster.
Most, perhaps all, existing disaster-management policies do not directly or indirectly address the kinds of problems just mentioned. What might be done differently? How might such policies be better framed?
Some general recommendations can be offered at this point. They are not meant to constitute an exhaustive list or to be finely calibrated to different cultures, different organizations, or different management systems. Rather, they provide indications of the directions in which research and public policy might move if society is to do a better job of coping with industrial disaster surprises. Because the seriousness of these problems warrants broad mobilization of intellectual and material resources, a mixture of pragmatic recommendations and idealistic suggestions is included.
First, there is a need for more empirical research on recovery from industrial disaster surprises. This includes better assessment of impacts (especially long-term impacts) so that affected communities are adequately informed about the problems that face them. Better evaluation of available responses is also necessary - including identification of alternatives when existing means are inadequate. The capability of existing institutions to handle global and semi-global impacts needs to be clarified, as well as legal jurisdictions over transboundary hazards that involve multinational corporations. It is also important to understand how some surprises become routine disasters. Which factors aid this transition and which retard it? What are the best ways of encouraging the process? Finally, existing models of disasters and disaster recovery provide inadequate explanations of surprises and long-lasting disasters. New ones are needed.
Second, a system of long-term post-disaster assessments should be institutionalized, wherever possible. Disaster reassessment reports might be prepared under independent direction at regular intervals for several decades after the initial disaster event. The system's goal would be to inform public policy-making about the need for timely corrections of hazard-management actions to take account of lingering impacts that have resisted resolution, as well as unanticipated late-blooming impacts.
Third, it will be important to encourage wider and more carefully targeted exchange of experience with industrial disaster surprises among affected individuals, communities, and institutions. People who face highly unusual or unprecedented problems need to know how others elsewhere have attempted to cope with related problems. The establishment of global or regional clearinghouses for information could assist this process; so, too, could reciprocal community-level initiatives that do not depend on customarily slow channels for the diffusion of scientific and managerial information (Perlman 1993).
Fourth, the policy-making and planning process for hazards management should be modified to seek inputs from groups that are suffering from lingering and late-blooming effects of disasters that have otherwise disappeared from public view. This will require improving feedback from various mechanisms for reviving awareness of past disasters and changes in the predominantly short-term planning horizons of policy-making bodies and hazard-management agencies.
Fifth, industrial disaster surprises need to be addressed in much broader contexts than heretofore. This is perhaps the most important task that faces researchers, managers, and public policy-makers. Ironically, single-minded attention to hazards and the mitigation of hazards per se may not identify the most promising choices for recovery. Communities typically suffer from a variety of problems that intersect with hazards and must also be addressed jointly if hazards are to be successfully coped with. Economic investment problems are one obvious candidate. For example, it is clear that the process of deindustrialization is closely connected with the opening up of possibilities for speeding recovery from Minamata's disaster. Facing the decline of Chisso Corporation's local plant, the community is being forced to look for alternative economic investments. A heretofore odious reputation as a toxic monument is being turned to advantage as Minamata seeks to become a focus for tourists interested in environmental regeneration. In the process, the adversarial stance of victims and plant personnel is no longer such an impediment to recovery. Elsewhere, changes in political culture and disaster recovery are tightly interwoven. This is so in Eastern European communities affected by Chernobyl. There, prospects for recovery are as much bound up with changes in ideologies, governmental structures, and the role of science in public decision-making as they are with technical issues such as victim compensation, improved monitoring of radiation, and decontamination of soils and water (Mitchell 1993). There is already growing recognition that environmental problems and economic problems are often interrelated and may require joint action. This has given rise to the concept of sustainable development, which also provides one of the more promising contextual frameworks for addressing disaster surprises.
Contextualization of hazards research and hazards management will undoubtedly improve prospects for recovering from, and mitigating, industrial surprises. But explicitly taking account of overlapping issues and problems does not alone guarantee success. Such issues and problems are subject to substantial change at the time-scales that affect recovery. Since recovery times are typically measured in decades, the process of recovery is hostage to a wide variety of more or less unpredictable scientific, technical, and societal changes. In other words, environment, society, and hazards-management systems may not be stable throughout the recovery period, and assumptions about appropriate choices of responses may become outdated and faulty.
This poses difficult problems for policy makers and the public as a whole. Decadal-scale predictions of societal and technological change have previously not proved to be very reliable and there is not much indication that they will improve significantly in the near future; it is, therefore, not likely that such predictions will be particularly helpful to those who must cope with, and recover from, industrial surprises. In the absence of accurate predictions, one alternative is to take a proactive stance towards change - that is, to shape its outcomes rather than adjust to its constraints. It would be both premature and presumptive to specify the form that such interventions will take; however, they will probably require redirection of deep-seated parts of the social system that structure our values and behaviour. These include - among others education, cultural myths, and ethical guidelines. For most of human history, education, myths, and ethics have worked slowly and unevenly - but often comprehensively - to bring about changes in human behaviour. We are now faced by the possibility that industrial disaster surprises will pose new challenges that require society to speed up the operation of these mechanisms to cope with a set of hazards that is both emerging more quickly and lasting longer than heretofore.
The desire to rid the world of environmental hazards and disasters appears to be deeply embedded in Western culture. Only within the last few decades have researchers and scholars come to accept a different view - namely, that it may be better to learn to live with (and adjust to) many types of threats. This book suggests that industrial disaster surprises are putting our capacity for adjustment to a rigorous test.
Gaskins, Richard H. 1989. Environmental Accidents: Personal Injury and Public Responsibility. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Girardet, Herbert. 1992. The Gaia Atlas of Cities: New Directions for Sustainable Urban Living London: Gaia Books.
Mitchell, James K. 1993. "The future of Russian science is of concern to all nations." Scientist 7(19): 11-15.
Perlman, Janice. 1993. "Mega-cities and the innovative technology: An assessment of experience." Hubert H. Humphrey Lecture on International Comparative Planning, Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, October.
Santayana, George. 1905. The Life of Reason. London: Constable.
White, Gilbert F. 1969. Strategies of American Water Management. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Contents - Previous - Next