Houston Chronicle

Technical focus overlooks the human toll of disaster

James W. Hikins, Ph.D.
July 15, 2010

The disaster in the Gulf has been unfolding for so long we face the prospect of becoming indifferent to its implications. There are dangerous and disturbing consequences to the narcotizing effect of the BP oil spill--consequences we ignore at the risk of making ineffective future efforts to cope with disaster.

First, extended media attention on disasters occurring elsewhere conveys the feeling that catastrophe happens to others, not to our own community. After the earthquake in Haiti, the possibility that California's San Andreas Fault could cause similar devastation was mentioned. But the protracted saga of the Haitians' plight muted what should have been a wake-up call for cities like San Francisco situated on fault lines. We forget that all of us may be caught up in some way in some sort of calamity at any moment. As sociologist James Cornell notes, no catalogue of disasters may ever be complete because new entries are written every day.

Adding to this narcotizing effect of the BP fiasco is the prevalence of the disaster theme in movies and popular culture. The media's proclivity to bring disasters from around the world into our consciousness almost daily is but the newest example of what has for decades been the mantra of news organizations: If it bleeds it leads. No wonder we have a cavalier attitude to disaster. Disaster has become "hum drum," seemingly inconsequential in our busy lives.

Nor has modern technology helped to avoid or mitigate disaster. In his book, Natural Disasters, David Alexander reminds us that death and destruction from natural disasters has increased in recent decades. And while the calamity confronting residents of the Gulf Coast is human-made and not "natural," who could argue that our reliance on contemporary technology has not increased the risk of disaster? Contemporary civilization, for all its scientific and technological progress, is today actually more likely to be affected by human-made catastrophe than in decades past.

As problematic as these factors are, there is an even more disturbing tendency made conspicuous by the catastrophe in the Gulf. Almost without exception, our response to the calamity has been technocentric. Since April 10, when the explosion on the Deep Water Horizon rig took the lives of eleven workers, the human dimensions of the disaster, and efforts to mitigate them, have taken a back seat to our fascination with technologies, real or imagined, that might stop the oil flow or clean up its consequences. At this moment our attention is called to The Whale, a giant oil tanker converted to gobble up huge amounts of oil on the Gulf's surface. Recall that the first futile attempt to cap the gushing well was given the prosaic name, Top Hat. That we bestow these kinds of monikers on instruments of technology is symptomatic of our focus on numerous technical methods--some realistic, some not--to fight the oozing mess. It is telling that more of us have become aware of the technique for cleaning oil from pelicans than how we might treat the personal, emotional, and psychological devastation that is affecting humans and their communities in the Gulf region.

Nor should anyone underestimate the importance of paying more attention to the humane, non-technical aspects of disaster. Imagine, for example, the human toll that will (not would) be wrought when (not if) the San Andreas or New Madrid Fault again ruptures; when (not if) the caldera in Yellowstone erupts again; when (not if) terrorists unleash another attack on our soil, perhaps using a nuclear or biological weapon; or when (not if) the next significant asteroid impact occurs. These are mega-disasters that most experts predict will happen "sooner or later." Events of smaller magnitude--airplane crashes, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and industrial accidents--occur somewhere almost daily. Yet between the time the first responders arrive and the first anniversaries of disasters there usually exists a void of human and humane attention to victims of the calamity.

An indication that some attention is being paid to addressing this shortcoming lies in the fact that politicians, from President Obama to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal have tried to call attention to the human costs of the Gulf tragedy. And New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu's recent hosting of 17 mayors from across the nation for the purpose of educating them on the effects of the Gulf spill so they may better prepare their own communities for disaster is a beginning. But these voices soon devolve into discussions of technical issues of oil skimming, dispersants, and, perhaps worst of all, how much money we can throw at the feet of victims. In short, we have been more concerned with quantifiable, technical solutions and have been ignoring the one thing that is most effectual in rebuilding lives and communities in any post-disaster environment, namely, language.

In my study of the way humans react to disaster I identify numerous language-based strategies to mitigate the effects of calamity on people and communities. Some of these strategies are as simple as providing accurate information to affected populations as quickly as possible--a task BP failed at miserably and repeatedly. Others involve the use of discourse that consoles despondent individuals and affected communities, that better motivates populations to respond to calamity, that more efficiently determines causes of disasters, and that better instructs people to prepare for future ones.

Much additional work is needed to identify the strategies that work best at repairing the social fabric of communities strained or torn by disaster. Yet it is unlikely that we will pay the required attention to this important issue as long as we remain focused almost exclusively on technological solutions.
So, how do we address this overreliance on technology? First, we must understand the limits of technology in mitigating the effects of disaster. Just as important as addressing the physical dimensions of a disaster is the requirement to consider more carefully our rhetorical response to calamity. Discourse that informs, consoles, reassures, instructs, and offers a kind of linguistic therapy is essential to disaster mitigation.

Second, we must rethink the sort of expertise available to treat the human dimensions of disaster. Historically, we respond to disaster by bringing together collections of so-called academic "experts," with credentials in the physical and social sciences. That is, we marshal statistical skill and capability, not humane and humanistic capacity. While expert scientific and social-scientific advice is required in disaster situations, what is equally called for is a new kind of specialist, one whose portfolio of expertise transcends particular disciplines and focuses on how and when we can better talk about disaster.

Fortunately, some universities understand this. At the University of Texas, for example, Professor Richard Cherwitz in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement created the Intellectual Entrepreneurship initiative with the goal of training "citizen-scholars"--a phrase describing those who apply to human problems a robust set of capacities, including the ability to operate in the margins among and between technological specialties.

In the case of disaster mitigation, this new brand of scholar is equipped to deal with disaster's human consequences, using methods not typically available to most technical specialists. If we are to avoid the effects on communities even greater than ones measured in gallons spilled and square miles devastated, and if we are to succeed in mitigating the problems humans now face in the Gulf disaster--and the inevitable calamities to come--we must encourage the cultivation of intellectual entrepreneurship. To do so requires that we recognize the limits of the technocentric approach. Put simply, we must learn how to talk better about disaster.


James W. Hikins, Ph.D. is Professor and Chair of the Department of Speech Communication and Public Relations at the University of Central Arkansas.