30 May 2017

Sacred Cows of Cancun (and some elephants in the room)

Author(s) Jason Von Meding, Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle, University of Newcastle, the

The Sendai Framework for DRR, like the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, represents a global consensus to address pressing issues for humanity. In May 2017, at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Cancun, 6000 people gathered to talk about the move from "commitment to action."

While we should appreciate the goals that are aspired to, and the intention behind them, it would be remiss of us to exclude the promoted strategies to achieve success from critique. Shouldn't we be willing to listen to and respond to criticisms, particularly with such vital outcomes at stake?

In Cancun we certainly heard a lot about action, or what we claim is action. Are the activities that we are undertaking actually addressing disaster risk? Our focus seems to be on private sector engagement. Innovation. Technology. Entrepreneurship. Growth. If this is our angle on risk reduction, what about the contention that this approach will simply create more risk?

I would argue that certain base assumptions and voluntary blind spots are required in order to promote this kind of "action" with little or no debate. Therefore I have put together the following (slightly tongue in cheek) list of issues that I feel a) are simply out of bounds in polite DRR conversation or b) we ignore for convenience.

Sacred Cows of Cancun

  1. Economic Growth - we are still attached to the idea that economic growth is essential. The idea that we can grow forever and simply “decouple” economic growth from environmental damage looks like a pipe dream when we consider the evidence, but is pervasive because we want to believe. So, should we talk about measuring success differently? Particularly when we consider 2.
  2. Limitless Consumption - we deny the reality of a finite planet in our pursuit of “development” for some and “way of life” for those that already have what they want. Humans already consume far more than the planet can support. We are pushing beyond planetary boundaries and very few people wish to consider what will happen if billions more join the ranks of the middle class this century, aspiring to consume like Americans. Will there be a silver bullet solution for this, like everything else?

Elephants in the Room

  1. Absolute Corporate Power - we have seen a great transfer of power to the private sector. Is this the world that we want to live in? Economic gains are concentrated among the already very wealthy, in a perversion of free market values. The losers in this system are often “saved” by the great philanthropists. Powerful philanthropic interests are very much committed to the “sacred cows” above. 
  2. Neoliberalism is Failing - 2016 showed a dramatic loss of trust. The public can see that mooted solutions require magical thinking. The rise of reactionary politics is putting more people at risk. 
  3. Usually, the Powerful Simply do Not Care - By and large, those in power demonstrate over and over that they do not care if people die, starve or suffer. This is not changing, as much as we might like it to. Power and profit come over people. 

As a community of scientists, practitioners, activists and policy makers, we frame our collective action as a force to reduce the impacts of disaster; and more broadly to fight against poverty, hunger, inequality and climate change. But what if we are still not getting to the root causes? The structural injustices? Why are people poor, hungry, marginalised and vulnerable to disasters? 

We appear to approach these problems with the assumption that our solutions must honour the Sacred Cows and ignore the Elephants. We can see a doubling-down on failed strategies because we are afraid of challenging the status quo. The academic community has become as inept as the political class at working for the common good, when it demands radical thinking. We do not have to accept this.

It is time for a frank discussion about the uncomfortable issues. Everything is NOT going great. We do NOT have it under control. Radical thinking IS required. 

We need to resist before it is too late. 

An earlier version of this piece was posted at http://danddresearch.blogspot.com.au/2017/05/sacred-cows-of-cancun-and-some.html

Dr Jason von Meding is an author, educator, researcher and activist based in Australia. He uses his position to create a public discourse on disasters that maintains a focus on systems of injustice that underpin vulnerability. He writes in both academic and journalistic forms, and is increasingly using film as a medium to communicate academic research.

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