After Disaster: Agenda Setting, Public Policy, and Focusing Events

By Thomas A. Birkland | Go to book overview

Preface

Sudden disasters and catastrophes are important events in our individual lives and in the collective memory of the nation. At some point in our lives, we can expect to be directly or indirectly touched by a natural disaster or by a major industrial or technological accident. Those of us with family or friends who have been victimized by disasters or accidents vividly remember these catastrophes, our worry for their well‐ being, and our awe when told of their sometimes harrowing experiences. We endure, or learn from family and friends, fears of danger and economic loss after industrial accidents. We experience or hear of the loss of one's livelihood, or the sorrow and anger that comes with the fouling of a pristine wilderness. Many events—the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Three Mile Island, the Loma Prieta Earthquake, Hurricane Hugo—by their mere names conjure vivid and indelible images of destruction, fear, and environmental degradation. For many of us, these events often serve as shared social and political experiences in which we ask each other, "Do you remember where you were when...?"

Sudden and vivid events are important to me because one such event—the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989—led me to ask the questions that I consider in this book. I grew up in Alaska and knew many of the places where spilled oil washed ashore. I knew people who worked on the cleanup of the spill and who studied its aftermath. My years in Alaska gave me a sense of how Alaskans, in particular, would react to this sudden, shocking, and in many ways heartbreaking catastrophe. Later we learned that, while the spill was in some ways an environmental disaster, the most dire predictions of the long-term effects of oil on the ecosystem may not come to pass. Still, Alaskans—and many other Americans—viewed the images of oiled beaches and sea creatures and found themselves torn between their desire to promote economic growth and access to domestic oil and to their desire to protect the environment against seemingly reckless corporations. The Exxon Valdez spill threw this dilemma—that has been important in American politics for years and in Alaska since before its statehood—into the starkest relief since the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969.

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