The role of art in social memory of disaster

art image for blog

I am wondering what is the role of art in social memory of natural disasters?  In New South Wales Australia this week we are hearing a lot about the commemoration of the first anniversary of the bushfires in the Blue Mountains.

These fires were notable because, although there were no human deaths, there was significant impact through the loss of hundreds of homes.  The Blue Mountains area is also on the perimeter of Sydney so very familiar and close to Australia’s largest, most densely populated city.   Also the fires occurred in Autumn, prior to what the community would consider the ‘bushfire season’.

I found an interesting news article on photographic art exhibitions that reflect on the fires and recovery period.  Clearly visual art is well recognised in the academic literature for its role in healing following trauma.  However I have found little reference to its role in social memory of natural disasters?  Yet surely there must be a link? So I went hunting.

There is an interesting blog, Blended memory, by PhD student Tim Fawns on how digital photography interacts with what we remember and forget.

There is also an emerging vein to follow about use of digital technologies /social platforms whereby citizens use such technology to “preserve biographical remembrances interwoven with the collective memory of the past of the city; to express emotions and biographical anecdotes; to overcome the trauma” (Farinosi & Micalizzi 2013).

Drawing lessons from past disaster responses in the Philippines

A seminar at Durham University will explore lessons from the disaster risk reduction and management responses to Typhoon Haiyan in 2013; the 1990 Baguio Earthquake; 1991 Mount Pinatubo Eruption; and 2004 Mudfloods caused by Typhoon Winnie in the Philippines.

The seminar by Dr Nancy Parreño from the Philippine Women’s University and Dr Inès V. Danao from the Asian Social Institute is entitled “Exploring disaster responses in the Philippines” and will take place on 20 October 2014 at 13:00 to 14:30, W007, Dept of Geography.

Floods, storms and quakes uproot 22 million in 2013, numbers to rise

A report from the International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) of the Norwegian Refugee Council finds that ” more than twice as many people are affected by natural disasters than 40 years ago and the trend is expected to worsen as more people move to crowded cities in developing countries.”

Story at http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/16/us-foundation-disasters-displaced-idUSKBN0HB2PG20140916

Complementary concepts? ‘Social memory’ and ‘time stories’

The term social memory seems to be taking hold in the resilience and disaster fields but I came across a new term today that I thought was interesting.  Fincher et al (2014) in a paper in Geoforum use the term ‘time stories’ which they define as ‘narratives connecting pasts, presents and futures’

There were two aspects of this paper that I found interesting.  Firstly the authors describe four ways that geographers consider linked aspects of ‘time and place that range from the daily aspects of ‘lived experiences’ to imaginings of the future.  I thought that social memory, as we consider it in this blog, links best with their understanding:

The third part of our understanding of time is that the time periods of past, present and future—those imagined,  remembered and experienced times—form a central organising mechanism for thoughts and actions. Time stories are central to when people make sense of events and predictions. Philosophers have focused on elucidating the relationship between past, present and future, those three phases of time that are unable really to be demarcated empirically because of the human habit of forming ‘‘an extended present’’ from them (Shipman and Baert, 2000, p. 317).

Secondly, I thought one key finding of the paper – that for community members it is the continuities that are very important – was interesting given our blog’s focus on disasters.  Because we know that continuities can abruptly and rapidly become discontinuities.  So I wonder how ‘time stories’ would play out in a community that has experienced a natural disaster?

Do people link flooding to climate change?

From Talking Climate’s newsletter 7 July:

One recent academic paper showed an association between perceptions of changes in weather (especially flooding) and beliefs about climate change. However, the study couldn’t establish causation: people who were already concerned about climate change may have simply been more likely to notice changes and attribute them to climate change.

The perception of links between extreme weather and climate change is a burgeoning field of research. Another question, though not the focus of this study (Taylor et al. 2014), is whether the beliefs of people who are already sceptical about climate change are influenced by extreme weather. In our analysis of media coverage of the Brisbane flood in 2011, Anne Leitch and I found that narratives reflecting a denial of climate change seemed to be reinforced by the flood and other extreme weather events. That is, by situating the flood in the historical record and current political context, a case is built to deny the existence of climate change.

One reader wrote in a letter to the editor that: “There were a lot more floods in the 19th century and I don’t think they had much in the way of global warming or rising CO2 levels back then.”

Another wrote: ‘‘carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had nothing to do with the recent severe flooding in Australia. Making exaggerated claims regarding CO2 only shows the lengths people will go to in order to score political points for the introduction of a big new (carbon) tax on everything.”

 

 

 

Resilience 2014 Recap

It’s already been a month since the Resilience 2014 conference, so timely to share the summary that the conference organisers asked us to put together from our session: “Knowledge for disaster resilience: Exploring memory, governance and resilience in practice”

What overarching question was your session about?

  • How can social-ecological systems, communities and societies be more resilient to natural disasters?

Specifically, the presentations addressed:

  1. Social memory and media representations of natural disasters in Australia (Anne Leitch, James Cook University, Australia)
  2. Ecosystem-based management and social governance capacity in Eden, South Africa (Patrick O’Farrell, CSIR, South Africa)
  3. Governance during different phases and types of crises, using the example of the Montserrat volcano (Emily Wilkinson, Overseas Development Institute, UK)
  4. Practitioners’ views of resilience and its usefulness as a concept in disaster risk management practice in Queensland, Australia (John Handmer, RMIT, Australia)

What were the main insights, in relation to the conference theme (resilience and development: mobilizing for transformation) from the session?

  • Media discourse has an important opportunity to create and sustain social memory. There are examples where it does this (i.e. catalyzing community response after a disaster, marking anniversaries of events) but more often it fails to do this, because the news cycle focuses on ‘events’ more than the quiet periods in between when learning from past events should be informing preparedness for future events.
  • Interacting social and ecological drivers of change are creating conditions that lead to natural disasters and in many cases are eroding community resilience
  • Demographic change (people with long term knowledge leaving an area, new people moving in) means that social memory is lost, and attitudes towards risk are changed
  • Governance structures are undermining resilience, in some cases (South Africa) through centralization, poorly resourced local governments, and a widening disconnect between authorities and individuals, and in others (Australia), by subsidizing complacency through indiscriminate handouts
  • Policymakers / practitioners are intentionally vague in their usage of resilience to ensure that all stakeholders buy into it
  • Resilience is defined mainly as self-reliance, but there is a paradox: in a low risk disaster situation, individuals can help themselves, and emergency services can too. In a high risk disaster, individuals cannot help themselves and neither can emergency services.
  • Practitioners can identify complex problems, but not appropriate solutions.
  • Crises can lead to institutional learning (even triple loop learning, where local ideas of risk converge on scientific ideas)
  • Crises can lead to governance shifts, joint processes of institutional learning that align risk

Did the science/practice/policy dialogue bring out any added values in your session?

  • Highlighted the need to clarify what is meant by community resilience which often is construed as ‘bouncing back’ but in a post-disaster context the prior state is usually untenable. This is in contrast to social-ecological resilience and its emphasis on adaptive or transformative change.
  • Resilience discourse is being used to further particular political agendas – politicians ‘brand’ communities as resilient to absolve governments of providing support
  • Are there examples of social memory actually informing responses to disasters? Andrew Fox of Plymouth University asked this question, and later (in a comment on this site) pointed me to a UK project he’s been involved in called Sustainable Flood Memories. 

Can social memory increase resilience? Can it decrease resilience? How?

Junko Edahiro from Japan for Sustainability told us a wonderful story today at the Resilience 2014 off-site session on “Coastal Vulnerability and Resilience facing climate change”. “The ‘Miracle of Kamaishi': How 3,000 Students Survived March 11” emphasizes the importance of generating new learning in an unprecedented event, but also the need for individuals (in this case children) to self-organize and take initiative to save their own lives.

 

How is disaster resilience influenced by culture?

How does cultural context matter for creating and retaining social memory, and for responding to disasters?

Is social memory transferable across places and contexts?

"She'll be right," Courier Mail, 5-6 Feb 2011

This is one of our favourite pictures from our collection of media images for the message it conveys about responding to disasters. It appeared in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail a few days after Cyclone Yasi, which struck North Queensland in February 2011. At the time we were analysing Australian newspaper reporting on natural disasters over a five-year period to understand how the word ‘resilience’ was being used in relation to disaster events (Leitch and Bohensky 2014).

A recurrent metaphor was of the tough North Queenslander, a ‘hardy breed,’ well versed in extreme weather and accustomed to coping in times of hardship (as exemplified by our laid-back mate in the photo). Similar descriptions were applied to other ‘country’ or rural populations. In fact, such an image is deeply engrained in the Australian psyche and has a historical basis in the development of Australian identity in the colonial days, when self-reliance, together with mateship, were keys to survival.

One attribute of resilience is the ability to self-organise. Self-organisation, in the context of community response to disasters, means the organisation of support and resources for community preparation, response or recovery. The more that the community can provide and resource this support  itself, and the less that it has to rely on aid or assistance from elsewhere, the more resilient it will probably be. Of course, natural disasters are, by definition, situations that overwhelm a community’s capacity to get back on its feet without some form of external aid (Etkin and Dore 2003). The question is how much assistance should be provided, how long, and by whom?

Certainly the media depicted many examples of people helping others, of whole communities rising up: Brisbane’s Mud Army after the Southeast Queensland floods became one such feel-good story.

Yet in examining how concepts of self-organisation were expressed in the media discourse related to disasters, we found references to another dimension of Australian cultural identity. Entitlement, expectation and complacency in some cases seemed to be undermining the ability–and incentive– to self-organise and therefore be resilient:

“‘While most people are resilient and are prepared for the worst, we still find a number who would not even sandbag or move their gear upstairs before floods,’ said one man who did not want to be named. ‘They were hoping to get new furnishings or a handout so they didn’t bother. It does make you wonder if we offer too much.’” (anonymous, Cairns Post, 20 October 2010, referring to the 2010-11 cyclone season)

Culture can define attitudes and responses to disasters. But culture changes. Even the culture of entitlement can change, it seems, when governments stop doling out disaster assistance payments, or insurers refuse to cover homes in areas that have been repeatedly hard hit.

How has culture affected responses to extreme events elsewhere? Can cultures learn from one another’s experience?