weather disasters

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Only the interruption of the transfer of damages to those less represented in decision-making spheres will make the fight against risk enter the agenda of power

The emergence of the public issue of the environment fueled the pre-existing debate on risks and disasters in the field of applied social sciences. Several authors have sought to theorize the issue of threats to the ecological stability of society. Among them, the sociologist Ulrich Beck maintained that the risk category would be redefining the social whole in a supposedly different way from what we had known before the emergence of the environmental issue as a public problem.[I] In seeking to characterize what would be totally new, he gave particular weight to high-impact technologies and their destructive power.

To outline the new conditions for critical mobilization of society, it was based, in particular, on the experience of the German ecologist movement, in its resistance to the use of nuclear energy. Given the conjunctural force demonstrated by that movement, this author came to assume that technologies with a high destructive power would tend, in the near future, to be strongly rejected by the population, given the spectacular nature of the disasters they can produce. For him, the question of risk would become the new axis of the structuring conflict of contemporary society.

Ulrich Beck's work was widely disseminated and was also the subject of some questions: would it make sense to understand risk as a new axial principle of social organization? Or would society divided into classes, gender and race still be a category capable of explaining the decision-making processes related to technical choices, defined in the calculation centers of large corporations, under the imperatives of profitability and competitiveness?

Would the division of society into class, gender and race not be able to explain the unequal socio-spatial distribution of risks associated with the location of equipment, dangerous infrastructure, waste deposits and unsafe housing according to the logic of valuation and devaluation of the land market? Is this division not sufficiently explanatory of the processes of vulnerability that fail to attribute or subtract to non-white and low-income social groups, little represented in the political sphere, their capacities for self-defense in the face of environmental, technological, sanitary, insecure housing, land insecurity, etc.?

From this second perspective, it is understood that, in class societies, the dominant spatial practices have always been subordinated to the logic of wealth accumulation and the geostrategies of power. There would not, therefore, be a significant autonomy of technical rationality in relation to the purposes of accumulating money and power. Technical risk, from the perspective of these major interests, has always been treated as a manageable side effect by business and government strategies of denial, neutralization or compensation of damages.

Historian Alain Corbin has shown how, in the early days of industrialization, technological optimism and a naturalization of nascent pollution prevailed among the elites. All the anxiety associated with the supposed evils of miasms and human emanations, he said, contrasted with the experts' tolerance of industrial emanations. The wise men had great optimism and confidence in the capacity of technical progress to limit the undesirable effects of factories. The experts dismissed complaints of nuisance, gave consent and practiced a pedagogy of technical progress.[ii]

Moreover, the fight against poverty itself is often evoked to justify, for example, the construction of dangerous equipment such as mining dams, in the countries of the South. Or, in the countries of the North, the search for energy independence has been serving, as in the case of the effects of the war in Ukraine, as an argument for the risks associated with nuclear energy to be imposed and accepted.

It is therefore necessary to consider the role of the discursive struggle in the dispute over the negative impacts or the supposed innocuousness of techniques, spatial practices, logistical structures or the use of hazardous substances. Scientific denialism, recourse to counter-reports, disqualification of evidence or evocation of supposedly greater causes of a strategic order are means applied, in the public sphere, by developmental coalitions and blocs of geopolitical interests. It is worth asking: would there not be a certain naivety in believing that the disaster itself would play the role of “a critique similar to that of political countermovements” or that “reading the daily newspapers becomes an exercise in criticizing technology”? [iii]

Or that "the most convincing opponent of the dangerous industry is the dangerous industry itself"? [iv] We know, for example, that the Fukushima nuclear power plant, in 2011 in Japan, was reopened just one year after a major disaster and promises of its closure. Oil leaks, dam failures, threats linked to the construction of Belo Monte, disasters resulting from unsafe housing – there will always be a dispute between arguments and justifications.

In a public debate held a week after the Samarco disaster in 2015, for example, while data on the more than proportional victimization of blacks and browns in the districts hardest hit by the dam failure were being exposed, business representatives proposed, in parallel, that the State would create a fund destined to save companies responsible for disasters of great consequences. In other words, it dared to propose that “organized and discriminatory irresponsibility” would be financed by all of us.

If there is an unequal distribution of decision-making power over the production of risks, the same occurs with regard to the distribution of the risks themselves. In 1991, World Bank Chief Economist Lawrence Summers wrote his infamous Memorandum, leaked in the magazine The Economist,, justifying the economicity of the perverse socio-spatial division of polluting practices.[v] He then proposed that polluting activities be located in countries where the population was poorer and had a shorter life expectancy.

This discriminatory logic – of a kind of political economy of life and death – has been effectively applied at the international level, often more accentuated since the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s. Since then, these reforms have allowed international investors to put pressure on governments local governments to make environmental regulations more flexible as a condition for their implementation in peripheral economies. This favored the imposition of damages and risks on the most dispossessed and made environmental inequality a constitutive element of the “environmentality” of neoliberal capitalism.

As sociologist Norma Valêncio recalled, regarding the disasters in São Sebastião and Bertioga, on the north coast of São Paulo, “the geomorphologically safer lands were the lands which the more affluent layers of society appropriated”. “What remains for the poor is, most of the time, irregular occupation with an informal, parallel land market, in areas that are not only intrinsically insecure, but where public infrastructures are non-existent, insufficient or inadequate”.[vi]

This unequal dynamic has been presented by critical social movements as an explanation for the inaction of states and corporations in the face of climate change diagnoses. According to them, while those who hold the power to make decisions regarding deforestation, agrochemical, hydropower, oil and gas projects can keep away from the damage they themselves produce, systematically transferring this damage to the most unprotected people on the planet. , no effective measures will be taken.

The philosopher Walter Benjamin had written that it was necessary to pull the emergency brake of the locomotive of progress to avoid a trajectory towards a possible collapse.[vii] Today we see that those who suffer the effects of the emergency and sound the alarm do not currently have access to the brakes. Consequently, only the interruption of the transfer of damages to those who are less represented in the decision-making spheres can make the fight against risk effectively enter the agenda of power.

A news organization recently consulted its readers on what thewhat public power should do to protect the population from extreme weather events. Several responded: "raise the population's awareness of the risks", "improve warning tools", "provide areas with infrastructure before receiving construction", among other proposals. The inclusion of representatives of vulnerable groups in decision-making on risk prevention policies would be the beginning of a solution to the evils of environmental inequalities.

* Henri Acselrad is a retired professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFRJ).


[I] Ulrich Beck, Risk society – towards another modernity, ed. 34, Sao Paulo, 2010.

[ii] Alain Corbin. The perfume and the miasma: The smell and the social imaginary, XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico, 1987.

[iii] Ulrich Beck, From Industrial Society to the Risk Society: questions of survival, social structure and ecological enlightenment, Theory Culture Society, vol. 9, 1992, p. 116..

[iv] Ulrich Beck, op. cit., 1992, p. 115 and U. Beck, Ecological policies in the age of risk, El Roure, Barcelona, ​​1998, p.165.

[v] Let Them Eat Pollution, The Economist, February 8, 1992

[vi] “Rain 'does not explain the disaster' on the north coast of SP, says expert”

[vii] In 1940, philosopher Walter Benjamin spoke of the need for an emergency brake on the locomotive of progress; Gesammelte Schriften, Berlin, Suhrkamp, ​​1977, I, 3, p. 1232, apud M. Lowy, Revolution Is the Emergency Brake – Essays on Walter Benjamin, ed. Literary Autonomy, São Paulo, 2019, p. 145.

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