It seems that our world is steadily becoming more unstable and unpredictable, from terrorism, to climate change, to a possible economic collapse, disaster looks as if it is right around the corner. Disaster management seeks to mitigate those risks and protect society from disintegration following the aftermath of terrible destruction. Understanding it requires a look at the theoretical assumptions that underlie current approaches and future changes in the field.

What is a disaster?

Any significant discussion of disaster management theories needs to sketch out what exactly a disaster is, and what if anything human beings can do when one occurs. Like many issues relating to society and culture, a universal definition of a "disaster" tends to elude us, being instead contingent on the particular attitudes and ideals of the day.

Still, a disaster can be generally understood as "a natural or human-caused event, occurring with or without warning, causing or threatening death, injury or disease, damage to property, infrastructure or the environment, which exceeds the ability of the affected society to cope using only its own resources.”

The need for disaster management

The above definition has certain consequences when we speak about "disaster management" because it implies that the particular area which is being affected does not have the ability to fight through the event on its own. For many, the memory of Hurricane Katrina, and its effects on New Orleans in 2005, evoke just that sort of destruction. It seemed that the whole of the city was engulfed in chaos, misery and death. It is in such situations that disaster management comes into play to minimize the disruption caused by the event, and in doing so protect life and property, and civilization itself.

The basic theoretical assumptions of disaster management

The use of the term disaster management implies the ability to "manage" a very destructive and chaotic event, as if it was akin to managing a group of steel workers, or managing your money. In reality though, it is more of a mitigation against the various threats that arise due to a disaster, in order to lower the amount of total damage it can do. In some cases, where the disaster is expected, such as the possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack, steps may be taken to prevent it. Other times the disaster may be generally expected, but the time when it happens may not be known, such as in areas affected by earthquakes and hurricanes.

Disaster management therefore must always concern itself with analyzing potential threats, protecting against those threats, having contingency plans ready should threats materialize, and finally have a concrete plan or system in place to repair any damage sustained. This represents the standard theory of disaster management.

Different theoretical approaches

Going beyond the essence of what disaster management is, there are also different theoretical approaches that sometimes conflict with one another in terms of how best to protect against the dangers of disasters. For example, much of the contemporary thinking surrounding disaster management comes out of the management sciences discipline, which uses statistics and mathematical modeling to maximize managerial efficiency. Disaster management often makes use of such models for the purpose of determining which events are more likely than others.

The limitations of disater management

Due to resources being scarce, and time limited, it is impossible to protect effectively against every threat, so targeting efforts toward what is more likely seems quite practical. Yet the problem does not always lie with the known risks, sometimes it lies with the unknown risks. That makes it difficult to accurately predict events in the medium and long term future, making the current disaster management approach problematic.

This problem is even further compounded by unknown unknowns which are events that may be impossible to predict or anticipate, yet never the less can have profound effects on society at large. Contemporary theorist, Nassim Nicholas Taleb currently makes those types of events the focus of his work, dubbing them "black swans." According to his theory, which draws upon Chaos theory and the work of mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, the sheer amount of variables at work within complex and dynamic systems such as an entire society, make it virtually impossible to predict certain events that can have a revolutionary impact on the system as whole.

The implications of black swans

While sometimes positive, black swans can be quite negative, as evidenced by the recent financial collapse on Wall Street, something that, according to Taleb, the risk management sciences failed to predict. In the context of this theoretical outlook, the focus of disaster management comes to rest not on mitigating against identifiable threats, but on creating more robust systems that can withstand a variety of known and unknown shocks. In many ways that approach is the opposite of what the world has been experimenting in the last decades, with an emphasis on interconnectedness, specialization and optimization over robustness and flexibility. While that approach has increased our efficiency in everything from communications to economics, it has also made various aspects of society such as financial markets, more susceptible to a systemic collapse. Thus in order to truly manage disasters, we may need to go back to systems which are more self reliant, localized, and more capable of withstanding both known and unknown disasters.