Disaster Justice: The Geography of Human Capability

By Verchick, Robert R. M. | Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Disaster Justice: The Geography of Human Capability


Verchick, Robert R. M., Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum


INTRODUCTION

A funny thing happened on the way to the sumo tournament. As expected, I was wowed by the wrestlers' varicolored robes and plus-size bodies, but I left more impressed with the bustling spectators and their super-sized hearts. In the broad lobbies of Tokyo's. wrestling arena, souvenir stands lined the walls, stocked with keychains, sweat towels, and bobbleheads featuring all of your sumo heroes. But what hooked me--along with dozens of Japanese fans headed for the bleachers--was a wooden kiosk at the back where a lady was selling jams and chutneys made by farmers in Tohoku, a hilly region to the north, which less than a year ago had been pulverized by a monstrous earthquake and tsunami. The line for jam and chutney snaked along for several meters. Even in a crowded lobby, with the year's first tournament moving into full swing, these folks, through the smallest of gestures, wanted to help. (1)

Natural disasters affect us this way. They often pull a nation together and inspire acts of generosity and good citizenship. But for those who study (or have lived through) natural disasters, there is also a less encouraging side. Despite the best efforts of individuals and their communities, the heaviest burdens of disaster are borne by those with the least power--those who, for whatever social and economic reasons, are more exposed, more susceptible, and less resilient when disaster strikes. Social structures designed to protect people from discrimination often fracture under the mounting stress. Catastrophe is bad for everyone. But it is especially bad for the weak and the disenfranchised. That was the case in California's Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. It was the case in Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And, sadly, it was the case in the 2011 Japan earthquake, where many with lower incomes and skills were pushed into poverty and where victims over sixty years old accounted for more than sixty-five percent of all deaths. (2)

In the United States, "social vulnerability"--the part of a community's susceptibility to harm that can be attributed to demographic characteristics--has become a major concern among disaster researchers. For reasons I will develop in this Article, social vulnerability should become a more prominent concern in our nation's disaster policy. I have written on this topic before, and I call it "Disaster Justice." (3) I have noted its relationship to the environmental-justice movement and suggested how advocates could build on lessons learned in that movement. (4) Other legal scholars have begun examining disaster justice from various angles. (5) The topic appears to be gaining critical mass. If so, we legal scholars can learn a lot from our colleagues in the social sciences who have been investigating this terrain for more than three decades.

This Article is about setting the foundation for more detailed discussions of disaster justice in the legal setting. To do that, we in the legal community need to know more about the social science data underlying a community's disaster risk. We must better understand the political and moral implications of a society that allows a "disaster underclass" to grow unnoticed in a nation committed to freedom and democracy. And we must have some idea of the steps we must take to address the problem.

Part I of this Article investigates the social meaning and geographic patterns of disaster. It describes how a testy letter from Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed insights about the social causes of disaster that are today reflected in disaster research centers and policy circles throughout the United States. We will see how social scientists--in particular geographer Susan Cutter and her colleagues--have come to think of disaster as a "social" phenomenon, where demographic characteristics like class and race can influence a community's hazard-risk index as much as its location. Until now, most of the legal scholarship in this area (mine included) has relied more on selective accounts of disasters than on national or regional statistical data. …

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