There were some striking words said on Tuesday 11th May. The new UK Prime Minister’s first speech after his visit to the Queen stands out not for repeated mention of the word ‘deficit’ but for the repeated reference to ‘responsibility’. Regardless of your political position, the new political landscape has profound implications for how we live with risk. Contrast these two sets of statements about flooding — the first comes from focus group meetings commissioned by Sir Michael Pitt’s review of the UK’s 2007 floods:
‘It’s entirely the council’s responsibility to prevent and deal with flooding’.
‘What do I pay my council tax for? Why isn’t someone actually doing this? Why do I, myself, have to do it, if there’s nobody out there digging that brook deeper and draining it out? Why have I got to do it?’
The second comes from a government publication, distributed after the 1947 floods:
“Every stretch of flood bank is assigned two or three men who live nearby – many of them volunteers – whose task is simply that of any patrol in a battle, to give warning of movement by the enemy. Directly the level of the river reaches a predetermined height on the gauge posts, the flood patrols are called out.”
“So there remained only the mess to clear up, as tens of thousands of families returned to their dank, soiled homes … Typical was the action of the W.V.S at Reading, which organized voluntary “flying squads of Mrs. Mops” to go round and help clean up the houses that had been flooded … “
These two statements embody the end members of two very different interpretations of how we live with risk. In the first, risk is something to be managed by others.
We create institutions to manage flood risk and we expect them to write that risk out of our lives, whether by building defences to protect our homes, clearing out the drains to stop flooding, telling us when and where it is safe to go and rescuing us when we fail to respond to warnings made. The job of managing risk sits within the instruments of state, and the analytical and financial tools that the state then uses to undertake the management. Risk is known by the state and communicated to those who live with it. In its most authoritarian form, such as in Cuba, which has some of the most successful tropical storm measures the world over, those who live with risk are subsumed by the state.
In the second, risk is something that we live through. By experiencing risk, and being allowed to experience risk, we come to understand it, work with it, know our environment and take preventative action when we need to. Psychologists have demonstrated, categorically and over many years that it is this experience of risk that enables us to live with it, through the ways in which it informs the mental short-cuts, or heuristics, that allow us to live with the continual exposure to the risks of the world around us. When we cross the road, we don’t complete a full safety assessment first, because we have learnt a series of preventative actions that allow us near instantaneously, and most of the time, to know how to be safe. Thus, in its most neo-liberal form, the state retreats and relies on our learning, not only of how to live with risk, but also of how we have to respond altruistically for whom risk becomes catastrophe.
There is no doubt that a primary philosophy of the new UK coalition government will involve a rolling back of the state. What this means for the way we come to live with risk will be interesting over the next decade, whether it is a rethinking of the role of bodies like the Health and Safety Executive or the Environment Agency, or the civil protection services like the police and fire and rescue authorities. One thing is clear: the society of the 2010s is not the same as the society of the 1940s. Over the last 70 years, we have seen a profound repositioning of the state in our lives and, as the 2007 statements above show, we now have a series of expectations about what we expect from the state. Reversing this situation, is not easy, perhaps impossible, in an era where perceived inaction by the state during catastrophe (witness what happened during the first volcanic ash cloud event in Europe) is rapidly transformed by news media as a failing of the state even if all intentions are that the state should not be there in the first place.
Professor Stuart Lane, Director of Hazard, Risk and Resilience