The Coupling of the Chronic and the Acute: Environmental Problems, Disasters, and Leadership
Department of Sociology and Anthropology University of Ottawa Ottawa, Canada
The intensified activities of a growing human population have resulted in dangerous new linkages between the slow-onset and the sudden. Social constructions are in continual interaction with emergent and only partially understood constructions of nature. Human activities now unleash nature´s constructions on a planetary scale. For example, greenhouse-gas emissions let loose the chronic environmental problem of global warming, which gives rise to acute hazards such as more intense and frequent extreme weather events. This paper first develops a theoretical framework for integrating environmental sociology and disaster sociology. It starts from some key concepts suggested by Max Weber and incorporates conceptions developed in environmental sociology and disaster sociology.
The second part uses this theoretical framework to analyse interviews with political and emergency management leaders who had to manage an extreme weather disaster. That calamity resulted from intense, persistent freezing rain, which paradoxically was produced by warming, that crushed the electrical grid and led in the winter of 1998 to the most expensive disaster in the history of Canada and of the State of Maine affecting the most people in both those places. It just missed Boston. Reliance on a centralized electrical grid for essential needs, including heat in a frigid winter climate, increased vulnerability to this extreme weather and manufactured a seemingly natural disaster. This was a hybrid techno-natural disaster resulting from the interaction of a hazard constructed by nature and vulnerability constructed inadvertently by those modern societies. How do leaders who dealt with the acute crisis of a disaster make sense of the chronic problem of managing relations between human constructions and those of nature? How do they mitigate both environmental problems like climate change and disasters, and deal with their interrelated risks? The paper is an extension of the analysis in my new book Leadership in Disaster: Learning for a Future With Global Climate Change (Montreal: McGill-Queen´s University Press, 2009) to be released in May.