Friday, March 18, 2011

Risky geography

Left image: Devastation in Japan, March 2011.
Right image: Professor Iain Stewart at large.

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With the recent heightened profile and awareness of natural and human induced disasters around the globe it is interesting to contemplate the concept of risk in relation to geography. Several leading geographers have included the concept of risk as one of their key concepts in geography. Whilst for some the presence of risk as a concept amongst the frequently identified geographical concepts of place, space, connection and change may seem puzzling, I feel that the concept of risk is one warranting examination. In fact, the presence of risk as a key concept provides a degree of dynamism and edge which may in fact provide a real engagement component to a developing curriculum.
Risk is a term associated more with business and insurance but it is increasingly turning up associated with phenomena of geographical significance. For example we talk about ecosystems at risk, areas associated with significant environmental risk in terms of natural hazards and diffusion of disease or environmental hazard i.e. nuclear contamination or oil spills for example. How do such references come about? To answer that question we need to look at what the definition of risk is really about.
Risk has been defined as:
• the potential that a chosen action or activity (including the choice of inaction) will lead to a loss (an undesirable outcome). Almost any human endeavour carries some risk, but some are much more risky than others
• future issues that can be avoided or mitigated, rather than present problems that must be immediately addressed
• a combination of the likelihood of an occurrence of a hazardous event or exposure(s) and the severity of injury or ill health that can be caused by the event or exposure(s)
• a state of uncertainty where some of the possibilities involve a loss, catastrophe, or other undesirable outcome.

In this age of rapid change, uncertainty and continuing interference of humanity with natural and human systems, the concept of risk is omnipresent when we look at almost any geographical phenomena. The geography of risk is only just becoming a thread of thought for geographers but the concept does provide an interesting lens to observe, analyse and suggest possible futures for the earth and its peoples. Current issues being debated such as population growth, climate change, migration, endangered species, mining, genetic engineering, nuclear power and deforestation all can be viewed via the lens of risk. Every action has a consequence and by our very presence on earth we create risk in terms of altering connections and interdependencies which leads to a state of “uncertainty where some of the possibilities involve a loss, catastrophe, or other undesirable outcome”; a state of risk.
My thinking on this topic has been stimulated by the wonderful BBC series How the Earth Made Us (2010)and the work of geologist Professor Iain Stewart. These five one-hour episodes on how geology, geography and climate have influenced mankind are wonderful examples of looking at past, present and future in terms of risk. I suggest his series is a ‘must see’ by geographers to get an understanding of the risk concept.
As Iain Stewart said in a recent address to the Geographical Association in the UK;

“It would seem that there is something deeply engrained in human nature that makes us wish to push down the recognition of risk and instead choose to ignore it. At all times, and all over the world, people have made lives for themselves in high risk areas. Sometimes this can be accounted for through poverty (people having little choice as to where they live), or, at the other end of the spectrum, prosperity (having such financial means that loss or damage of property is insignificant). Sometimes, however, it would seem that pure place attachment alone is the key.”
In the first episode of the series on plate boundaries Iain explained that the attraction of water supply at the plate boundaries has seen the clustering of populations but also has seen human populations being located in the most dangerous places on earth in terms of natural disasters. Ironically this episode aired in Australia only several days before the cataclysmic events of March 11 in Japan.
In fact “hazards are predictable and recurring events, often returning to the same region, and yet knowledge of this fact does not stop people from continuing to rebuild in the same place. Therefore, there must be another factor, or a multitude of factors, that are resistant and that compel people to remain in areas of high risk.” Moreover and somewhat ironically “it is often the wealthy that choose to live in physically hazardous settings, convinced that it is safe to build palatial homes on hurricane-prone shores, perched precariously on steep unstable slopes or amidst incendiary scrub. They do so, partly because their affluence can buy superior engineering, which affords some degree of protection, but more because the social and economic resilience of the owners offsets their acute physical vulnerability.”

So Iain’s claim that “hazards emerge from nature, disasters are made in society” resonates with the geography of risk with populations having an understanding of the extent of the risk they face as a result of their increased geographical knowledge. For example, despite the dangers of living on the plate boundary in Japan, people continue to live there because of the benefits and attachment to place. The people of Japan have considered risk and “the potential that a chosen action or activity (including the choice of inaction) will lead to a loss (an undesirable outcome)”. No longer is risk in the hands of “God” but a considered response by populations to geographical phenomena of place and associated risk analysis.
However the geography of risk goes beyond the risk of location. A recent conference in Portugal called the ‘Geographies of risk’ broadened the reach of the concepts to be a interdisciplinary way to examine the manifold ways in which humanity engage with the notion of risk The conference covered topics as different as the representations of colonial and post-colonial spaces, gambling, terrorism, migration and border patrol, ecosystems at risk, endangered species and genetic engineering. The conference decided that “migrants settling in foreign countries and border patrols, pirates and insurance companies, biologists and ethicists, scientists and environmentalists, merchants and poets, terrorists and governments share a common activity: the assessment and management of risk. Perceptions of risk and risk-taking permeate everyday life, from the public sphere to the most intimate realms of interpersonal contact.” In turn, the focus on geography in the context of risk is related to an understanding of the “term as a practical inquiry deeply rooted in the notion of space. Indeed, space is already a representation of risk insofar as it represents (or at least speaks to) border and border crossings, containment and mobility, the limits and conceptualizations of the body, and the location of collective and individual memory.”

The whole area of risk in geography provides a dynamic lens to view and study geography and geographical phenomena. Literature on the topic is limited but I am sure it will grow significantly as the concept of risk gains currency in geographical thinking and curriculum development.

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