“Disasters are not natural. Disasters are not natural”; this is the mantra that Professor Ilan Kelman wanted us to take home more than anything. Until now, my knowledge on climate change has been courtesy of Sir David and Greta - not bad really, but not enough either. Kelman has written a book not to negate how bad climate change is, but for the reader to consider what other elements have led to the changes we’re seeing in our world.
Kelman’s definition of a disaster is a ‘situation requiring outside support for coping’; but past the semantics, we’re being asked to look at what hazards are - different to what you might think. Spoiler alerts aplenty if you’re planning to read his book: We shouldn’t be looking at flooding as the natural disaster, but as a hazard. The disaster is that the house was built over the river. The earthquake isn’t a disaster that killed a family; the collapsing infrastructure is.
Still with me? Climate change is very real - he’s not one of those conspiracy theorists who thinks it’s all made up -but think about it this way: climate change has created more rain, leading to more floods, but we can create a certain barrier around it to make sure there is no loss of life. Would you like a specific example? Kelman gave loads! London may have built the Thames Barrier, but then they built the whole of Canary Wharf… in a very high flood risk area. Kelman pointed out that some of the areas even give it away in their names - Mudchute, Crossharbour; get it?
Anyway, I could go on, it was a really interesting talk and subject in an area I know a little about, but is so vast. Kelman spoke at Science Oxford’s new home in Headington, to an audience of around 20. A shame, really, because I think more people would have enjoyed hearing his take on natural disasters.
What I appreciated the most about Kelman was his openness about his privilege and how this affects his (and anyone with privilege) way of working around the issues of manmade vulnerabilities. Ultimately, after a series of intelligent questions from the audience, it was deemed that those in a place of privilege like him, or like myself, should do as much as we can to change the world; one more tweet, one more reduction in certain products, reading more, engaging more.
One hour is not nearly enough to unravel a subject of this calibre, especially with everything that is in the news at the moment falling perfectly in the category - epidemics, flooding, etc - but I will give Kelman credit in that now I really do want to read more about his subject. I guess that’s why they had the books for sale outside the lecture theatre...
Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London and a Professor at the University of Agder, Kristiansand in Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research.