Tuesday, March 02, 2010

"Rubble In Waiting"

Culture matters.

So do democratic institutions, effective government and progress-prone behaviors.

The real thought provoking thesis of this Christopher Hitchens article is thusly stated:

Seismology in this decade is already emerging as the most important new department of socioeconomics and politics.
The effects of upheavals of the earth can now be quite expertly studied, and even predicted, along a series of intersecting graphs that measure them against demography, income level, and—this is a prediction on my part—the vitality of democratic institutions.

Seismic sociology? Of course, I will want to hear a learned opinion from Maitri on this, but it all appears to feed into a broader, emerging field that focuses on catastrophic social science.



Maitri said...

Pat, I didn't know if you saw my response over at my place, so am posting it here in its entirety:

You touched upon something I almost mentioned in this post but didn’t, mostly to avoid a rational response from being marred by something very important but also extremely subjective and divisive.

When you consider an earthquake’s Mercalli intensity (damage it caused) versus its Richter magnitude (number measured using seismographs), you are looking at a qualitative assessment versus a quantitative one. But again, that Mercalli intensity number is still very scientific in that it simply looks at damage and puts a number on it, much like an insurance adjuster. That said, I almost asked in the post if someone had gone beyond Richter and Mercalli to create a new intensity scale which considered variables such as soil type and building height and density, and also sociological factors, e.g. whether buildings were built to code, presence of emergency response measures and overall level of development. To answer your question, I don’t know if such a field exists, but I also don’t want to know.

What good does such a scale do besides place a false sense of human control and constraints on something much, much larger than us? Chile is better-developed and is a democracy of sorts, so suffered much less destruction and will bounce back quicker from a higher-magnitude earthquake than poor, post-colonial, dictator-run Haiti? Do we need “seismic sociology” to see that? Additionally, Chile has geologic and geographic mitigating factors like stronger bedrock and a spread-out population and, yet, we still don’t know the actual death toll because of downed communication lines, and how will they recover in these crappy economic times? On the other side of the world, China develops at a rapid pace but with very low quality of construction, hence buildings that topple at the slightest tremor and river dams that are ripe for collapse. To bring it back home, my house is a fraking fortress (exactly because it was not built by a developer, ha!) – should I put this datum on a graph and demand a cookie for it? But, should a whopper of a midwestern tornado come along, I am screwed because such is the nature of living where atmosphere and earth meet.

All this is to say: When a big one kicks the demography, high income level and vital democratic institutions of, say, sits-on-pudding San Francisco, in the rear, social science’s intersecting graphs are immediately null and void. Have we learned nothing from the “response” of our democratic institution after Katrina and during the Flood? Yes, science can, does and should help the public and governments make informed policy decisions, but I am very uncomfortable with it being dragged into half-baked pet social-Darwinian theories that do not consider all factors and possibilities and are ultimately useless.

Their time would be better spent coming to terms with the fact that rich, poor, black, white live at the mercy of the earth and that development should not entail just money and quantity of stuff but money earned and spent responsibly and the quality of stuff.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

I did see it! I was actually going to bring some of those quotes over here, but the full text in comment form works just as well.

That is a lot of important information to be considered.

patsbrother said...

I had more substantive things to say, but I'll restrict myself to this:


Now there's a word.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Maitri, thanks for responding so quickly and exhaustively. As soon as I read that article, I wanted your take. Glad to know you'd already given the topic some thought.

As a wagering man, I'd put money on someone working on just such a "beyond Richter and Mercalli" scale as we speak. And I doubt it will be limited to only earthquake events.

You are absolutely right that such a scale would be used to "place a false sense of human control" on catastrophes. We've all seen how the "100, 500 and 1000-Year Storm/Flood" terms have been misused in regards to levees. Any catastrophic social science scale would likely be misused the same way.

Politicians may even give it a color code!

While I am not in favor of such a scale, I do view the world through the lens of planning and making contingencies. When the thought of seismic sociology was injected into my thought process, I wondered if considerations might be useful to highlight things humans do have control over: preparedness, organization, response, rescue and recovery.

I think such study might have immediate drastic impact on rescue and recovery operations as well. International first responders ran into cultural barriers with locals, errant do-gooders and each other as they attempted to open up the airport and port facilities in Port au-Prince. A small amount of cultural literacy in the hours before arrival could have prevented bottlenecks.

Finally, I think this is all part of our society's learning process in dealing with an era where catastrophic events are getting much more attention: September 11, the 2004 Tsunami, Katrina & The Deluge, Port au-Prince and now Concepcion. Man made and natural, they have all been seared into our collective consciousness.

A lot of folks are going to try to "make sense" of this. That's why I'm expecting to see a lot more seismic sociology refrerences in the coming months.

Maitri said...

Pat, I totally appreciate where you are coming from and encourage it. As I said, science can and should guide policy decisions and implementation, but not get into bed with social Darwinism, disaster capitalism and extremely binary engineering guidelines.

Geology appreciates data, subtleties and the concept of continuum. In other words, the earth is not something that can be simply graphed to come up with engineering and recovery solutions. It was that kind of graphing and averaging that caused the mis-engineering of the London Avenue Canal levee.

I work in the field of visual information systems, in which we can view not only 3d but also time and other variables. So, it is not impossible to see what's going on and make decisions based on that understanding. The solutions lies in full implementation and not leaving it at the mercy of pork and agenda-based social engineering.