20.5.2022 Friday – On extinction risk, commons risk, “natural disasters”

Extinction risks or X-risks are an interesting research topic that, however, has its own share of problems. I have one article in the works about some of its blind spots, and will be getting back to the topic later. Meanwhile, here’s something on classifying extinction risks, based on the following paper:

Cotton‐Barratt, O., Daniel, M., & Sandberg, A. (2020). Defence in Depth Against Human Extinction: Prevention, Response, Resilience, and Why They All Matter. Global Policy, 11(3), 271–282. https://doi.org/10.1111/1758-5899.12786

The paper classifies extinction risks based on a version of “Swiss cheese model” of accident causation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_cheese_model), namely by asking three questions:

  1. How does the risk start causing damage?
  2. How does it reach the scale of global catastrophe?
  3. How does it reach everyone?

Like in the Swiss Cheese model – pictured below – the risk can be avoided if it can be stopped by any one layer of defense. If a dangerous process can be recognized and prevented (layer 1), OR if it can be responded to (layer 2), OR if societies are resilient enough (layer 3), the end result won’t be human extinction (or some other undesirable outcome).

So far, this is pretty bog standard accident causation stuff. To me at least, the most useful part of this paper is the classification of risks, especially Figure 2 of the paper, which classifies the risks based on origin:

This dovetails with my thinking and actually helped to improve it. I used to classify catastrophic risks into “consumption risks” and “unilateralist’s risks”, but the words used here work better.

Commons risk in particular is a notable one: it means risks from activities that people know to be dangerous, but engage in anyway. In econo-speak, this is a tragedy of the commons type situation where negative externalities are not internalized by the actors. Sustainability problems fall into this category.

Note however that I’m not very happy with the decision to put “natural risks” into a separate category, especially since the authors then just note that

“To be able to prevent natural risks, we need research aimed at identifying potential hazards, understanding their dynamics, and eventually develop ways to reduce their rate of occurrence”.

There is considerable research evidence suggesting that “natural disasters aren’t natural”: what this seemingly counterintuitive phrase means is that most if not all natural processes create hazards at best, but whether hazards (or risks) turn into disasters depends on human acts of omission and commission (O’Keefe et al., 1976; Wisner et al., 2011.

In other words, risk turns into disaster because people are vulnerable to the risk, and this vulnerability is often even directly created, and at least exacerbated, by inequalities. The poorest and the most marginalised are routinely the most vulnerable, simply because they lack the means to secure enough resources to e.g. live in less hazardous locations or build their homes durably enough. The same dynamic applies to e.g. pollution and other environmental risks (Cushing et al., 2015; Farzin & Bond, 2006; Mohai et al., 2009; Torras & Boyce, 1998). Disasters are thus caused more by socioeconomic than natural factors, to the extent that many researchers believe the term “natural disaster” shouldn’t even be used at all, and the United Nations Office for the Disaster Risk Reduction (UNIDSR) officially phased out the term in 2018 (Chmutina & von Meding, 2019).

References cited

Chmutina, K., & von Meding, J. (2019). A Dilemma of Language: “Natural Disasters” in Academic Literature. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, 10(3), 283–292. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13753-019-00232-2

Cushing, L., Morello-Frosch, R., Wander, M., & Pastor, M. (2015). The Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Health of Everyone: The Relationship Between Social Inequality and Environmental Quality. Annual Review of Public Health, 36(1), 193–209. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031914-122646

Farzin, Y. H., & Bond, C. A. (2006). Democracy and environmental quality. Journal of Development Economics, 81(1), 213–235. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jdeveco.2005.04.003

Mohai, P., Pellow, D., & Roberts, J. T. (2009). Environmental Justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 34(1), 405–430. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-082508-094348

O’Keefe, P., Westgate, K., & Wisner, B. (1976). Taking the naturalness out of natural disasters. Nature, 260(5552), 566–567. https://doi.org/10.1038/260566a0

Torras, M., & Boyce, J. K. (1998). Income, inequality, and pollution: A reassessment of the environmental Kuznets Curve. Ecological Economics, 25(2), 147–160. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0921-8009(97)00177-8

Wisner, B., Gaillard, J.-C., & Kelman, I. (2011). Framing disaster: Theories and stories seeking to understand hazards, vulnerability and risk. In B. Wisner, J.-C. Gaillard, & I. Kelman (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of hazards and disaster risk reduction (pp. 18–33). Routledge.

About J. M. Korhonen

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