Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination

Lee Clarke's Worst Cases

from the author of Worst Cases: Terror and
Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination

An Interview with Lee Clarke

Question: Why focus on worst cases? They probably won’t happen, right? Why not focus on scenarios that have a greater degree of probability?

Lee Clarke: One of the main ideas in Worst Cases is that we can use possibilistic thinking to balance probabilistic thinking. Over the past couple of hundred years probabilism has come to be thought of as the only way to reason rationally. But I think that it sometimes makes perfectly good sense to take worst case consequences into account when people are making decisions. For example, the chances of getting into a commercial airline crash are extremely low. People who fly know that, and that’s why they’re willing to defy gravity every day. But they also know what happens if the plane gets into serious trouble at thirty thousand feet. That’s worst case, possibilistic thinking. It is reasonable to worry about both.

It is true, in a sense, that worst cases probably won’t happen. Still, as the political scientist Scott Sagan has said, things that have never happened before happen all the time. Just think of Chernobyl or 9/11. They had a low probability of occurring at any given time, but who would say now that we should have ignored them? It’s the same kind of thing as when you buy life insurance. Is it likely that you will die today? Probably not. But if you have life insurance you’re actually betting the insurance company that, in fact, you will die today. Is that irrational? Not at all. We say that people who don’t buy life insurance are irresponsible.

Question: Have there been more disasters in the past few years, or did 9/11 just heighten our awareness? In the book, you say that "big disasters are something we’re more prone to as a society." What does that mean?

You have to broaden your time horizon when looking at big disasters. “A few years” is too short a period of time. But if you look over twenty, thirty, or fifty years, then the answer is clearly yes. That is so for several reasons. Some of our technologies are extremely dangerous, especially toxic chemicals and nuclear materials. The disaster from a failure of, or attack on, a “cooling pool” of old rods next to a nuclear power plant wasn’t possible sixty years ago. Another reason we’re more vulnerable is that we concentrate ourselves in places, some of which are disasters waiting to happen. We work in tall buildings that are excellent terrorist targets, build houses in canyons that naturally burn, put cities directly on coastlines where tsunamis and storm surges are normal. One of the things I’m trying to do with Worst Cases is to encourage people to think more carefully about such possibilities.

Question: You finished writing your book before hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. But in your book you outline a worst case scenario that anticipates the flooding of New Orleans. Did anything about Katrina surprise you?

Clarke: Two things surprised me about Katrina. One was that I expected it to be worse. While Lake Pontchartrain spilled into New Orleans, the Mississippi River did not, and the worst case scenarios—projecting only a category 3 hurricane—called for it to. Worst cases can always be worse. The other was the level of incompetence and failure of imagination of the officials whose charge it was to protect people. As a worst case, Katrina was an easy one. It was predictable and predicted. Engineers knew how to prevent the flooding, and social scientists knew how many people would stay behind and what their needs would be. Imagine officials saying, the day after a monster earthquake in Los Angeles, “Gosh, we didn’t know how to prepare for something like this.” I doubt any official would say such a thing, and there should have been no reason for New Orleans’ officials to talk that way. It was an egregious example of hubris to put New Orleans where it was in the first place. I spend a good bit of time on the problem of hubris in Worst Cases.

Question: When you talk about dealing with worst case disasters in your book, you use the phrase "disorganizing for disaster." Obviously, you don’t mean our response should resemble the government’s response to Katrina. What should we do--as individuals, and in our social and governmental institutions--to better respond to disasters?

Clarke: As individuals we have to assume that organizations will fail us. The implications of this approach are enormous. It means that although we should demand more performance and transparency from officials, and the organizations they try to control, we should not buy their promises that they’ll always be there for us. They won’t. It also means that if we really want to prepare for disaster, we need to push resources down to the very local level. People die in the same ways, and in the same places, that they live—their houses, faith-based organizations, workplaces, and so on. In a plane crash, it is the passenger next to you who is the real first responder. If your office catches fire after a terrorist attack, it will be the person in the cubicle next to you who will save you. Command and control of disaster doesn’t work. It never has. We need to disorganize for disaster. Along these lines, I’d like to see an expansion of the idea of “critical infrastructure.” Presently, CI is mainly an engineer’s list: the power grid, energy production, telecommunications, and the like. But in a big flu epidemic undertakers become just as critical, because if you can’t get rid of bodies expeditiously you have a big problem. If a cloud of toxic chemicals drifts toward a major city, first-grade teachers become a critical part of the infrastructure. Disorganizing for disaster means abandoning command-and-control models in favor of networks and community preparation. We need flexibility, not rigidity, when our worlds fall apart.

Question: The political fallout from Hurricane Katrina was substantial. Does a worst case disaster like Katrina often inflict political damage?

Clarke: That happens. But the larger issue is how worst cases make for political and social change. And there the news isn’t always bad. The great plague of the 1300s wiped out a third of Europe’s population, but it also opened up societies that had become encrusted with tradition and saddled with unproductive aristocracies. In 1889 Seattle had its “Great Fire,” burning down a huge part of the city. Afterward, modern building codes went into place, and the city’s volunteer fire department—which was heavily criticized for its poor response—was professionalized. Most important is that the business district was rebuilt one story above the mudflats, setting the stage for Seattle to become a city of considerable commerce. Worst cases can have silver linings. Worst Cases has a whole chapter on silver linings.

Question: An assumption about disasters is that they befall the rich and the poor alike. But hurricane Katrina disproportionately affected the poor in New Orleans. Do worst cases tend to expose class differences?

Clarke: They do in the United States, because we work so hard to ignore class. The issue is complicated. Media representations of disaster, Katrina notwithstanding, usually portray disaster as capricious and random. A lot of scholarship on disaster, however, portrays disaster as following lines of race, class, and gender. That’s true a lot of the time, but not always. Yet, even when the Big Three aren’t in play there are usually still patterns in the suffering. Three quarters of those who died on 9/11 were white, and they were far more likely to be men than women. A great proportion of them were also rich. There’s a pattern there, though it doesn’t fit the media or the scholarly representations. We die in the same way that we live.

Question: You mentioned flu epidemics. The possibilities of a global epidemic of avian flu have been extensively reported recently. Preparations for such an epidemic are complicated because an effective vaccine can’t even be developed before the flu strain appears. Is panic a fairly rational response to this worst case?

Clarke: The idea of panic is a smoke screen. Officials use it to horde information and resources. At best, it is an uninformed way to understand people’s response to calamity. We have more than five decades of disaster research, somewhat less on risk communication, though still a lot, and panic is just so rare as to be useless as a way to describe behavior. If we raise our eyes a bit, we see that the way people are connected to their environments forms a system. Some such systems fail gracefully and some do not.

The coming flu pandemic is not complicated. We’ve had them before. We know what they do. We know how to lessen the carnage. Avian flu will be another Katrina in that way—predictable and much of it preventable. When it finally comes we can be in a position where we’ve built support systems that mitigate the devastation, or not. I predict that we won’t, because of a lack of political will and because of constricted imaginations. It will be very sad.

Question: Why have you made a career out of studying disasters?

Clarke: Reporters often ask me if I’ve been in a disaster, and I almost wish I had been! I’ve lived through hurricanes in south Florida and earthquakes in Los Angeles. I was in Windows on the World, the restaurant on top of the ex–World Trade Center, in May 2001; I could see the WTC smoke from my backyard. Once, I had good reason to think a plane I was in was going to crash, but, alas, it didn’t. Really, though, I’ve always been interested in how people think about and are related to their environments. Disasters are times when environments are precipitously degraded. Interestingly, just when you’d think people would act selfishly—when their environments don’t support them anymore—they act selflessly. It’s a fascinating world.

Question: What is on your list of the top disasters?

Clarke: That’s an interesting question because not all of them have high body counts. You see, what gets called a worst case is ultimately a matter of culture, a matter of how you look at an event and decide that it is or was or might be superlatively bad. The phrase “top disasters” only makes sense after you figure out what goes beneath them. Deciding how to arrange such lists means you have to decide what benchmarks you’re going to use to recognize the “worst.” That can be done, and I do it in the first chapter of Worst Cases, but it’s not an obvious thing. We look back and call some events worst cases. We also look forward to imagine them. Both are feats of imagination. So here are my lists, past and future. They are in no particular order.

Book details:

Lee Clarke
Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination
©2005, 200 pages
Cloth $22.50 ISBN: 0-226-10859-7

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Worst Cases.

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