Haphazard hazards

Natural Risk and Civil Protection
March 8, 1996

In theory, international conferences provide a good opportunity to break down the tribal barriers which all too often separate specialists and prevent the solution of important practical problems. For example, if we are to reduce the increasing social and economic burdens associated with environmental hazards (both natural and technological), there is a clear need for a more informed dialogue between relevant experts. The Commission of European Countries is, therefore, to be applauded for organising a multidisciplinary conference on Natural Risk and Civil Protection, held during 1993 in Italy, with the aim of bringing together physical scientists and civil defence practitioners to improve risk-reducing strategies throughout the continent.

Unfortunately, imaginative conferences do not always produce either intellectual synergy or a well-balanced book. In this case, there is marked geographical bias - of the 1 conference participants, almost half are from Italy, which also supplied nearly one third of the book's contributors - and subject bias - the volume is uneasily split between the two main conference themes. Following a short but useful preface by the lead editor, part one, "Opening session", contains four bland scene-setting contributions and part four, "Ways forward", is also brief, amounting to less than eight full pages. In contrast, part two, "Natural hazards", dominates the book, with the papers accounting for well over half of the total contributions, compared with only 12 papers in part three, "Key themes in civil protection". Although such treatment to some extent reflects the existing state of knowledge, it also indicates the failure of the conference to achieve much meeting of minds. Better thematic balance - as well as more subject integration - would have been welcome.

The individual contributions range from comprehensive reviews through detailed case studies to short notes. The best material contrasts sharply with the occasional stocking-filler. A comprehensive paper in "Natural hazards" is by E. L. Petersen and N. O. Jensen who, while dealing with European windstorms almost from first principles, also manage to describe the socioeconomic impacts well and demonstrate the difficulty in defining hazard trends, given an apparent recent increase in large storms but not in high windspeeds. Several papers on wildfires are also very informative, and contain new material, but their real value arises from an explicit melding of science with the planning needs of civil protection. A highlight in the "Civil protection" section itself is an authoritative paper by J. M. Nigg on warning systems, despite the fact that it confirms the lack of important advances in this field in recent years. More thought-provoking for emergency planners is a paper by Funtowicz and Ravetz on the concept of "postnormal" science, which exposes some key issues when dealing with uncertainty given that traditional strategies of scientific problem solving are no longer always appropriate.

Anyone turning to "Ways forward" seeking the integrating insights and practical guidance that the section title promises will be profoundly disappointed. Two distinguished representatives, drawn respectively from the physical science and the social science camps rehearse - rather than reconcile - their differences. Even a soothing editorial comment refers to the existence of "largely unresolved tensions", which are amply illustrated by the failure of these commentators to agree on basic issues, such as whether to embrace both natural and technological hazards or how to conceptualise risk.

The editors of this book have faced some difficulties in bringing these conference proceedings before a wider audience. The most intractable problems stem from the tribal divisions themselves. The result is an underlying lack of integration in the book while the overall emphasis on natural hazards is somewhat misplaced when several of the civil protection contributions deal primarily (and quite properly) with the risk from industrial installations. For many general readers the book will lack context. Europe is far from being the most hazardous of continents and no indication is given of the wider importance of the issues being addressed or even their significance compared with other European social and political concerns. Few contributors touch on the overarching drivers of increasing natural risk, such as global environmental change (which increases hazards) and the growing withdrawal of some governments from a commitment to civil defence (which increases vulnerability to hazards). Equally, there is no general recognition that, when devising civil protection, better hazard forecasting is the key to saving lives and better land planning is the key to saving property.

Such methodological problems are not helped by the absence of a strong and consistent editorial presence. The individual contributions range widely in quality and extend from less than one page to over 30 pages in length. No common format is adopted, and each paper is prepared in camera-ready style using different fonts and artwork. Not all are provided with abstracts or with references. In some instances, proofreading is quite inadequate (thus, in the list of contents, the reader is intriguingly invited to read about the migration, rather than mitigation, of volcanic disasters) and the standard of written English is sometimes poor. Despite the effort to produce an author and a subject index, serious doubts must exist about the market for such a book costing Pounds 80.00. No doubt individual tribal specialists will make reference to some of the better papers but one fears that few will be encouraged to read widely within the volume and recognise the common ground that has to be colonised by a mix of experts in order to achieve a safer world.

Keith Smith is professor of environmental science, University of Stirling.

Natural Risk and Civil Protection

Editor - Tom Horlick-Jones, Aniello Amendola and Riccardo Casale
ISBN - 0 419 19970 5
Publisher - E. & F. N. Spon
Price - £80.00
Pages - 554

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