‘Antifragile,’ not just resilient

The good news is that Albay province, which has chronically stood on the path of countless devastating typhoons, registered zero casualty after Typhoon “Glenda.” The bad news is that in adjacent Quezon, Batangas, Laguna, and Cavite, 54 people lay dead in the wake of this killer typhoon, the great majority of them pinned inside their concrete homes by fallen trees and collapsing walls.

It seems common sensical to say that while we cannot prevent typhoons, there is a lot we can do to shield ourselves from their harmful consequences. But, obviously, what this lesson means to people varies according to their circumstances and how they interpret advisories and warnings. Some communities become more fatalistic after repeatedly being battered by calamities, while others become more prepared.

A few local governments, like Albay, appear to have integrated scientific knowledge and disaster preparedness into everyday governance and public education, while many other provinces and towns are content to just talk about it. What spells the difference is what some sociologists call “resonance.” In some societies, environmental issues create a deep and enduring resonance in their institutional systems, and this resonance results in new awareness, new behaviors, new policies, new laws, and new ways of doing things. But, alas, in many others, including our own society, increasing environmental awareness has not always translated into an advance in institutional resonance.

How typhoons are formed, how powerful they are, and what determines their strength and the path they take, are questions natural scientists study and try to answer.  But, how ordinary people and their governments perceive and respond to typhoons, and what they do to become not only resilient but—to borrow Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s word—“antifragile” are issues that belong to the social sciences and cultural studies.

There is no direct communication between human settlements and a typhoon or an earthquake. Nature and human beings do not share a common language. Indeed, sometimes Nature acts as though it is punishing us for our sins against it. But that is just a moralistic way of interpreting its movements. Nature itself has no motives.

The impact of typhoons, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, storm surges, and earthquakes are always mediated by a society’s social systems. It is through these that we assign meanings to everything in the world. When it comes to weather forecasting and tracking earthquakes and volcanic activity in our own country, I would say dramatic progress came only in the last 20 years.

Even so, what we have done has not been enough. The scale of the human tragedy that Typhoon “Yolanda” unleashed in 2013 in the Visayas mocked our ability to protect our people from calamity.

Many people died from drowning in Tacloban mainly because they did not anticipate the full scale of the threat that “storm surges” represent. Since then, there has been a furious debate on whether the people of Tacloban should have been warned about tsunamis rather than storm surges. Scientists say the two concepts are different and should not be confused. But, the precision of scientific language cannot always be communicated to the layperson in ways that capture the contingencies and dangers of natural phenomena.

A good example of this struck me the other night over dinner with the family. Trained in the earth sciences, my son CP has been at the forefront of recent efforts by the Department of Science and Technology and the University of the Philippines to augment the forecasting services of the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa). Using 3-D mapping and other advanced tools, the initiative called Project Noah, led by his UP colleague Dr. Mahar Lagmay, has been able to offer the public precise information on intense rainfall in specific areas and identify places most vulnerable to killer floods and storm surges.

But how is it, I asked, that, despite this enhanced accuracy, Pagasa still issues storm warnings that cause schools to suspend classes on a sunny day? This was CP’s reply: Storm signals are warnings of weather conditions for the next 36 hours. They are meant to give people in affected areas enough time to prepare, seek refuge, or move to safer ground.  Most deaths from such events occur because people stay put in their homes or try to escape at the height of a typhoon or as floodwaters start to rise. Do you think communities need more lead time?

In the first place, I said, I didn’t know that that’s what storm signals meant. Like many, I take a Signal No. 3, for example, as something that will happen soon—say, in the next few hours, rather than after one-and-a-half days. Naturally, people get angry when offices are closed and classes are called off, and the rest of the day turns out to be bright and dry. CP said science has, in fact, made it possible to tell exactly what time a storm is going to hit a place, and people can now rely on hour-specific updates on its progress. Arguing as a sociologist, I countered that we can’t be entirely sure how people actually understand storm signals or how they factor them into their behavior.

I came away from the conversation convinced that at no other time has getting communication right become more crucial to saving lives than now.  I thought that perhaps there is a need to give people not just environmental warnings but also vivid scenarios of what to expect in given situations.  And, this can only be accomplished by natural scientists working in close collaboration with social scientists and cultural scholars.

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