What Do a Floating House and the Threat of Nuclear War Have in Common?

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Blog post by Jane Young

State disaster preparedness. That’s what Michael Guggenheim, senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmith, discussed with The Terry Project as part of our reporting on humanity in the face of disaster.

Our latest episode deals with the aftermath of disasters, including Oprah’s therapeutic style of disaster reporting and efforts to rebuild Christchurch, New Zealand after the 2011 earthquake.

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 But what about before? What is the relationship between state preparation for disasters and the actual experience and existence of disasters? As Guggenheim explains, complex.

Q: As a sociologist, what’s interesting about the materiality of disasters to you?

In our research project, we’re interested in how disasters are represented and demonstrated in exercises. An interesting thing about disaster exercises is the two most important things are absent: the disaster and the population. Exercises somehow have to create stand-ins for these disasters to make the exercise work. In some sense they have to find forms of materialities for the exercise’s purposes. For sociologists, it doesn’t make sense to attend an exercise and ignore all the efforts that disaster organizations are doing to recreate the materiality of disasters.

Q: Do you have a particular example of an exercise?

I attended a large flooding exercise in the UK. One part, which was a public demonstration, was about saving people from a house floating in a lake. Someone built the house for the exercise, there was a person stranded on the roof, and this person was saved by a helicopter hovering over the house. But the house was drifting away because the helicopter was producing so much wind. The weights used to fixate the house weren’t heavy enough, so the house was floating. There was a problem within the demonstration that had nothing to do with what was actually happening in a disaster, but with the problem of recreating a floating house only for the purpose of the exercise. In an actual disaster, the properties of a floating house would be very different. Saving someone from the roof wouldn’t necessarily be easier or more difficult, but it would be a completely different problem.

Q: What have you discovered about states and how they configure themselves around disaster?

It does not follow from the existence of a certain threat that the state is doing something about it. Rather, states use certain risks to legitimize what they are doing. This is where Switzerland is interesting: it matters historically which kinds of materializations are built by a particular state for the way states deal with future risks.

Q: What is the case in Switzerland?

Almost all of Western disaster preparedness goes back to the Cold War. Switzerland didn’t have nuclear weapons, but they were in the middle of Europe and would have been affected by atomic strikes. The Swiss had a strong relationship to the territory and mountains and, before the Cold War, built a lot of holes into the mountains, tunnels and bunkers, and out of this grew a kind of paranoid idea that the whole population should be put into the mountains in case of a nuclear strike. There was a system of bunkers and huge system of men whose job it was to deal with the population and send them into the bunkers. And after the Cold War, both the bunkers and civil protection remained and had to be repurposed. As in other countries, nuclear strikes became less important as a risk and were replaced by other risks like natural disasters. They became the legitimization of the existing organization of bunkers and civil protection.

For more meta-analysis of the social sciences and disasters, check out Guggenheim’s introduction to Disasters and Politics,  a book he co-edited with Manuel Tironi and Israel Rodríguez-Giralt.

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