Learning to live with the dangers of sudden environmental change

Sheets, Payson and Cooper, Jago ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2396-4414 (2012) Learning to live with the dangers of sudden environmental change. In: Surviving Sudden Environmental Change. University Press of Colorado, pp. 1-18. ISBN 9781607321675

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Abstract

Human communities around the world are increasingly worried about the dangers of sudden environmental change. This book aims to illustrate how the full time depth of human experience can reveal the nature of these dangers and help build long- Term sustainable societies. The diversity in human cultures across the past few thousand years is extraordinary, from small groups of hunter-gatherers to chiefdoms and states to empires with populations in the millions. The diversity of environments within which they lived is equally impressive, from deserts and oases through Arctic tundra to tropical rainforests with the greatest biomass and biodiversity of any terrestrial environment. Given this dual diversity, there are no recipes for evaluating how a culture should successfully adapt to its environment. But there is a phenomenon common to both cultures and environment, and that is change. Societies change as populations increase, for instance, and systems of authority emerge and strengthen as egalitarianism fades. In addition, societies affect their environments, sometimes for the better but often to the detriment of soils, flora, and fauna. Environments change on a short- Term basis (weather and seasonality) and on a long- Term basis (climate), and human societies of all kinds learn to adjust to those changes. Societies adjust to most environmental changes with little difficulty, as flexibility is built into adaptation. However, some changes are of such magnitude that societies are deeply affected by them, and the poststress society is recognizably different or in some cases simply does not survive. The most severe environmental changes, which massively impact societies, are often called "natural disasters." To find a truly and solely natural disaster, we would have to find an event that did not involve people, such as the K/T asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Some studies of "natural disasters" emphasize the natural component and neglect the human social component, and, as discussed later, natural scientists and engineers receive most of the funding in disaster research. However, the authors in this book believe deeply that sociocultural factors are essential in understanding risk, impact, resilience, reactions, and recoveries from massive sudden environmental changes. Therefore we prefer the term disaster to natural disaster when people are involved. Many disasters originate in the form of a force from nature, such as an earthquake, cyclone, tsunami, volcanic eruption, drought, or flood. But that is half of the story; people and their cultures are the rest of the story and must be as closely studied. How people distribute themselves across the landscape, how they feed themselves, how authority is structured, their perception of risk, their experience with earlier disasters, and the oral or written history of them are all crucial factors in how a society handles a disaster and how it recovers from it, or not. The documented impacts of disasters have been huge in the past, and with worldwide populations increasing-often dramatically in hazardous zones- impacts are growing in the present and will continue to do so into the future. According to statistics gathered by the United Nations, every year about 200 million people are directly impacted by disasters (Mauch and Pfister 2009). That is seven times the number of people affected by wars per year. Disasters are the stock-in- Trade of many movies and TV shows and are becoming ever more horrendous with increasing special-effects sophistication. Of course, the popular media emphasize death and destruction, panic, looting, and personal suffering of physical and psychological natures. Some disasters are even credited with the end of civilizations. One would hope that the broadcast and print news media would deal with disasters in a more balanced manner, and occasionally they do. But a Central American journalist let one of us (PS) in on what he called international journalism's best-kept secret: journalists in any country greatly exaggerate the disasters in other countries, so no matter how bad living conditions are in their country, they appear worse elsewhere. Social science studies of disasters do record suffering, but the studies that go beyond the immediacy of the impact generally find remarkable resilience and recovery. In addition, disasters have a creative aspect in that people can learn from them and adjust their culture to be better prepared for them in the future. Oral histories and religious beliefs can incorporate the extreme phenomena, so the precursors can lead to evasive action.

Item Type: Book Section
Uncontrolled Keywords: social sciences(all),arts and humanities(all),sdg 13 - climate action,sdg 15 - life on land ,/dk/atira/pure/subjectarea/asjc/3300
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Depositing User: LivePure Connector
Date Deposited: 27 Jul 2022 08:30
Last Modified: 12 Aug 2022 06:31
URI: https://ueaeprints.uea.ac.uk/id/eprint/86908
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