Blind-sided by disasters

We all know by now that while typhoons and earthquakes are natural phenomena (“acts of God,” as insurance firms refer to them), the disasters they cause are largely shaped by the way we live.  Some disasters are traceable to gross negligence and ignorance, others to irresponsible risk-taking.  Some are by-products of greed and incompetence, while others are reflections of the sheer vulnerability arising from mass poverty.  In all of these there is something that is of particular interest to sociologists — the reality that emerges from the blind side of a society.

This blindness is systematic in the sense that every way of seeing is also a way of being blind.  We may see better when we focus, but this typically comes at the expense of constricting our vision, of ignoring what lies outside our field of perception.  A few examples might make this clearer.

The political system sets administrative boundaries between towns or cities.  These boundaries define the scope of jurisdictions and responsibilities.  But nature does not recognize these boundaries. Flood water that accumulates in the towns upstream of the Marikina River is not retained in these towns; it has to come down to the lowlying cities of Marikina, Pasig, and Cainta.   These cities see only the rain that falls within their boundaries; they don’t notice the water that drains into their rivers.

Existing laws give local government units or LGUs ample powers to define their respective zoning and land use plans. Accordingly, every local government has tried to increase its revenues by expanding upscale residential projects and commercial activities within its boundaries.  There is no higher regulatory or coordinating body that assumes responsibility for reconciling these local land use plans with some comprehensive regional or national plan.  Yet the effects inevitably spill over to the neighboring towns.  While residents might welcome the positive impact of these developments on property values, they would very likely not notice the cumulative adverse ecological consequences of these activities.  This is an induced blindness that afflicts not only government officials but citizens as well.

The flood plains of Marikina, Cainta, and Pasig sometimes remind me of the topography of the ancient city of Kyoto in Japan.   Like Kyoto, these cities and adjacent towns constitute a basin ringed by mountains and low-lying hills.  But in Kyoto, the forested mountains are reserved to the spirits; up there is where the temples are shrines are to be found.  Mortals must live below.  Because they are not gods, humans are not to build beyond a certain elevation.  This divine order makes a lot of ecological sense too.  Rain water is captured by the surrounding forests, and so what trickles down to the city below never takes the form of ferocious floods.

This is the exact opposite of what we do with the hills that surround Metro Manila.  We carve them into residential enclaves in which the more affluent classes can live above the polluted communities of ordinary mortals. We cut the forests and pave the hillsides with concrete in order to hold back the loosened earth.  Then we wonder why today the rainwater from the mountains seems to cascade in volumes never known before.

All over the metropolis, families with marginal means have built shanties along canals, riverbanks, and lakeshores.  Their presence is functional to a highly unequal society.  These communities are an abundant source of inexpensive house help, drivers, gardeners, handymen, and private security personnel.  Politicians tolerate and coddle them because of the votes they represent.  They themselves do not see the danger to which they are exposed, or, if they do, they tend to minimize these while highlighting the benefits they derive from living under such circumstances.

Every society thus settles down to a way of life, where danger is normalized and risk becomes more or less calculable.  Then — when it is least expected — a jolt comes from nowhere.  A community finds itself blind-sided, unable to respond effectively.   The usual responses appear puny beside the complex problems that have piled up.  In the aftermath of the disaster, the community’s first reaction is to assign blame.  This is understandable and necessary provided it leads to a re-examination of the entire way of life that led to this.

This is where science comes in.  In the aftermath of typhoon “Ondoy,” it is certainly gratifying to see the science community come forward without any prompting from government.  Far from contenting themselves with simply observing the way people see the world and conduct their everyday lives, scientists must teach the community to reflect and see the blind side of their way of life.  This is clearly more than just a question of exacting integrity from public officials and citizens alike.  It is above all a question of sharing scientific information, of getting it into the stream of everyday public communication, until it becomes the basis for arriving at common agreements on what to do.

We eliminate our most formidable blind spot when our society and its ways become observable to itself.  And when, beyond commonsense, each one of us learns another language.  Only thus may we avoid being perennially blind-sided by disasters.

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