Reflections on Radix
Year One: Small Thoughts from a Small Researcher
By Ilan Kelman
As we look back over a year of Radix, which has included some terrible disasters, it is
important to ask what Radix has achieved. The outstanding feature for me
is that Radix goes beyond the interdisciplinary nature of the debate and
information resources, which are available to some extent in other fora, and instead seeks
to forge linkages amongst the different fields and processes. Radix does
not simply bring earthquake engineers, human rights specialists, and business managers
together, but actively tries to determine how the fields interact and could build upon
each others' work.
Furthermore, all locations and disasters are treated equally, as must be (but is rarely)
the case. Lessons from earthquakes in El Salvador and India are applied to analysing
flooding in Algeria and Cuba. Drought in Namibia links to terrorism in the U.S.A. Catch
phrases such as "sustainable development", "human rights",
"disaster management", and "minimum standards" form an interactive
network superposed on global maps of nations, states, disasters, development, and-the
fundamental issue of disasters-people.
The latter word must be emphasised. Disasters and development are about people and Radix
has brought together an impressive diversity of people to deal with people. When
injustice, more than ground movement, buried El Salvadorans in mud, we were all El
Salvadorans. When poor preparation and environmental damage, more than rainfall, drowned
Algerians, we were all Algerians. When insularity and arrogance on both sides, more than
blind hate or madness, brought us September 11, we were all Americans. When a generation
of war and five years of the Taliban, more than snow or a single bombing campaign, brought
famine to Afghanistan, we were all Afghans.
Disasters, vulnerability, and development are often described as deriving from the local
condition. Yet, paradoxically or logically, they are also truly global. Tornadoes don't
show passports at border checkpoints. El Niņo doesn't send an envoy to Lima to apologise
for affecting fisheries. Hurricane Michelle didn't stake a position on Elian Gonzalez.
Mount Nyiragongo enters no peace negotiations. Yet these are all hazards. What about the
I am learning through Radix that disaster management for sustainability
is common sense. The ideas are neither original nor brilliant nor innovative. So why are
we not doing it? Why do we make the same mistakes? Why do we not see the obvious? Bihar
floods parallel Icelandic avalanches emulate Sydney forest fires. Is the human condition
the same everywhere? Are disasters truly cross-cultural, bringing the same corruption,
errors, and lack of caring without regard to race, ethnic origin, language, or religion?
Should we simply give up differentiating human beings because they all create the same
I do not know how to properly explain such questions, never mind answer them. I would,
though, try to merge the themes mentioned here by suggesting the Radix-global
view for tackling the local issues. Radix brings together topics,
professional fields, and people to create ideas and to build on each others' work. A
hydrologist is not working with a behavioural scientist; the hydrologist and the
behavioural scientist are becoming less labelled and less field-specific. They are part of
a group, drawing upon their specific expertise to tackle the massive problem of humanity.
Hazards don't have citizenships and vulnerabilities are potentially a common thread
throughout humanity. In Radix, we can throw away our disciplinary
passports and cross the borders we construct-borders as artificial as many political and
administrative ones. We have Doctors Without Borders, Teachers Without Borders, Engineers
Without Borders, and Clowns Without Borders. The implication is that these groups work
internationally, any location, any country, any condition. Should we add any discipline?
Practically, of course, doctors, engineers, journalists, sociologists, and geographers
have important skills which cannot be done by all. They are labelled as such for good
reasons. But conceptually, is it time to suggest that "Without Borders" also
applies to discipline borders and the labels which accompany it? And even if such an
approach were welcome or practical, would it achieve anything?
My Master's degree covered social vulnerability to volcanoes. My Ph.D. studies physical
vulnerability to floods. With much help from many others, I am attempting to coordinate
Disaster Diplomacy which combines political science and international affairs with
disaster management, environmental management, and development. I am making modest
contributions to a project related to emergency shelter named shelterproject.org
As a young, naīve researcher, I have crossed disciplinary boundaries without thinking. It
just sort of happened. Now, as I seek a post-doc, I am running into difficulty. My
proposals must be pigeonholed into a specific category. I must choose highly specific
fields of classification. 300-word abstracts must cover background and future innovation
over three separate fields. When a reviewer sees that the names of my degrees do not
reflect the topic of my proposal and that my references and publications are scattered
over so many topic areas, what are they going to think? A recent application named five
referees: a volcanologist, an architect-consultant, a development-worker-now-researcher,
an emergency-manager-civil-servant-and-researcher, and a human geographer. Except that all
five (who will likely read this essay and hopefully will not be insulted) would probably
never classify themselves in the way in which I have done. So I am confused. As will be
the reviewers who consider the application (and these referees).
What could be done? Should we start a peer-reviewed journal entitled "Radix"
to cover this area in the way we would wish to see it? Should we campaign for departments
and research councils to stop building barriers against research which does not fall under
their remit? Should I just charge ahead, unthinking, hoping that someone will be foolish
enough to provide me with a grant on my own terms rather than on theirs? And would any of
these "solutions" actually help the people in need?
The last question is clearly the most critical. Radix continues to focus
on the people, communities, and societies affected by disasters. Irrespective of the
politics, shenanigans, self-interest, and blinkered views surrounding, Radix
heads beneath the surface for root causes and fundamental ideas. An axiomatic geometry of
vulnerability, perhaps. Conceptually, it is easy to identify the principles which have
struck me from being involved in Radix. I have appended them below,
despite the ill-formed, raw notions they encompass. These thoughts are not my own,
although I am responsible for misrepresentation and misapprehensions. They are certainly
more obvious than they are radical (radixical?).
One year of Radix has taught me plenty and I hope it has taught others as
much. Yet learning by itself does not produce solutions and, as noted already, little is
new or particularly challenging conceptually. Yet it does seem to be challenging in
practice. Terry Jeggle wrote "We all know what needs to be done". Ben Wisner, in
his reflections on Radix Year 1, provided examples of "successes in
applying knowledge". We are doing what needs to be done, albeit slowly and
scatteredly. Nonetheless, the antonyms of the adverbs in the previous sentence would be
preferable. We have come from a long way, but have a long way yet to go.
Four potential tenets of disaster management:
1. Natural disasters do not exist.
i.e. All disasters are created by humanity. Hazards are necessary inputs and natural
hazards obviously exist, but the root cause of disaster is vulnerability which is created
2. All disasters are slow-onset.
i.e. Hazards may be rapid-onset, but the disaster results from humanity's decisions over
3. Response and relief must be completed for sustainability.
i.e. If a community is rebuilt to the pre-disaster state, it is simply rebuilt to the same
vulnerable condition which caused the disaster in the first place, so it is a waste of
resources. "Returning to normal" and "recovering" are meaningless
phrases. No "normal" exists and recovery to the same state as before is
pointless. Thus, use disaster to achieve sustainability (and this concept expands beyond
relief, response, and recovery into using the entire disaster management cycle-including
prevention, mitigation, and adaptation-for achieving sustainability).
4. Exceptions to the above exist.
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