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Friday, July 19, 2013

The Slow-Moving Aftermath

Sparks from a golf cart. Faulty wires. A sleeping engineer. Illegal additions to a building. Vibrating machines. The past few months gave us a daunting parade of errors and human failings. West. Lac-Megantic. Dhaka. The accidents keep coming, but our ability to explain them has improved. We can even choose sides. Do we focus on structure or process? Do we view the burnt-out building as a victim of routine nonconformity or tight coupling? Was its owner accident-prone, or did it lack a commitment to resilience? Some of the giants in the field strive to reconcile these views, stretching out the moments that led to an accident over dozens or hundreds of pages. Quantity is joined with novelty. Culture is expressed within, or outside of structure. Environmental strain triggers internal pathology. The theorist moves from the site of destruction to link facility to organization to social order. Important questions flow from this evolution: Was the accident foreseeable? Can we learn from it, or avoid its return?  We've grown skilled at sequencing the complex and often gradual causes of accidents.

Sometimes these events reach a threshold, and our meager theories hit a wall. What happens may be too large, unexpected, public, or costly to be considered an accident. The events are too dramatic. There is too much loss. Normal experience does not account for such entropy. Rips appear in the social fabric. We find ourselves coping not with an accident, but a disaster. The boundary between the two can be blurry. Once we pass it, there are qualitative differences, and new limits to our understanding. One such limit is revealed in a major work by Richard Samuels on The Great Eastern Japan Disaster, or 3.11 (2013). The book is an exhaustive account of how an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown impacted a nation's discourse. By virtue of their scale, shock, and social resonance, disasters such as 3.11 are far more open-ended than accidents. This is true in terms of their systemic causes, which blue-ribbon commissions and investigative boards reconstruct. But it is also true in terms of the range of narratives that people wield in their wake. 3.11 suggests that while disasters test our ability to piece together fragments of broken systems to explain what happened, we may be even less able to tell how they contribute to institutional change. It invites us to view recent disasters in places such as West, Texas, the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh, and a small town outside of Quebec in a new light. 

If ever we would expect a disaster to lead to dramatic change, it would be a "civilization disaster," a "failure of modernity" such as 3.11. The book pursues this notion. It tracks the narratives that arose after a tsunami claimed 20,000 lives, erased 70,000 homes, and led to meltdowns that bathed an area in the radiation of untold Hiroshimas. Policy entrepreneurs emerged and pursued change through a variety of narratives and tropes. The narratives touched upon security, energy policy, and governance. Each used the disaster to frame problems, interpret causes, and render moral judgment. As prescriptive narratives, they tilted in three directions. Some called for "vigorous, forward-leaning" response. These included fundamental, qualitative change to institutions such as the electric power industry and Japan's self-defense forces. Others demanded that existing institutions be undone. Still others asked that the nation "stay the course" and make only quantitative adjustments to existing institutions. The latter framed 3.11 in terms of soteigai, or "the unimaginable": events that could not be mitigated through planning. Those with an interest in the status quo, such as TEPCO, which operated the Fukushima Daiichi complex, asked, "To what extent can we burden ratepayers to prepare for disasters that occur only every several hundred years and that considerably exceed in scale what the nation has foreseen?" The narrative battles raged. Yet for all the talk of new alliance dynamics, nonmilitary disaster forces, the elimination of prefectures, and an end to the "nuclear village," the "stay the course" narrative prevailed in each policy arena. 3.11 ends with admittedly provisional findings two years on, but they are sobering nonetheless: The Great Eastern Japan Disaster was not a "game-changer," it "did not cause structural change to the Japanese body politic," and piecemeal reforms that were adopted had already been underway. Change was "incremental," not institutional.

Here is the lesson for the social theorist and the disaster law scholar: we need to broaden our view of the relationship between disasters and institutional change. We can be too enamored with the critical juncture. We look for institutions to arise or change after we experience an exogenous shock. These moments lead to increased pressures for change, unite previously ineffectual groups, divide elites, ease constraints, and allow actors to import new institutional fragments. The focus on critical junctures stems from our traditional view of institutions: as relatively persistent and self-reproducing. The "enduring institution" informs a number of concepts in social theory, from isomorphism to lock-in to increasing returns. When we see change this way, as brief periods of disorder and action that disrupt much longer periods of stability, we focus too much attention on the critical juncture. The lack of dramatic institutional change after disasters such as 3.11 surprises us. But there is another way to view the post-disaster period, one that may prove useful across settings and cultures. While disasters are certainly able to disrupt stable institutions, they also occur in the context of gradual institutional change. Mahoney and Thelen's work, which informs the story of 3.11, is at the vanguard of this theoretical shift. Ambiguity abounds in their approach. They focus on struggles over meaning, application, and compliance that lead to gradual change through the displacement, layering, drift, and conversion of institutions. The result is a powerful set of causal propositions that link political context, characteristics of institutions, and different change agents to outcomes. 3.11 hints at how this framework can explain the slow-moving aftermath of disasters.

Far from abandoning critical junctures, our sense of the links between disaster and gradual change can strengthen our ability to explain them. Capoccia and Kelemen summarize the research on critical junctures, and show that we're a long way from understanding them. We need to better specify their units of analysis and why more often than not they lead to "near-misses" rather than change. But even with the conceptual work that has already been done, we can begin to stretch out the narratives that arise, overlap, and vanish after a disaster, as we once learned to scrutinize the "incubation periods" that set them in motion. We can ask which agents of change use a given narrative. We can study the institutions that are at stake and their sources of ambiguity, from their implicit assumptions to their layering and use in new settings. We can determine the sources of gradual change that were already underway - the neglect of old rules, the shifts in how institutions are interpreted and applied. The aim is to develop a more sophisticated understanding of how disasters dislodge, redirect, or adjust the pace of gradual change.

This theory-building will take time. The summer's tragic events invite us to get started. Some of them had relatively simple causes. For example, the explosion at Adair Grain's fertilizer storage and distribution facility that wiped out the center of West, Texas took place in April. Within weeks, we heard of three possible causes, even as the Chemical Safety Board and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms jostled for control over the site. The same can be said for the garment factory collapse that claimed over 1,100 lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh, or the runaway tanker cars that exploded in Lac-Megantic "like a yellow mushroom cloud," destroyed the center of town, sent a "wave" of crude oil into a river, lake, and storm sewers, and burned for more than a day. The legacy of each disaster remains far more indeterminate, and the narratives, and their targeted institutions, are piling up. They are remarkably diverse. Here is a sample of the narratives that explain the events in West, Texas: (1) a failure of oversight due to lack of resources (e.g., the last OSHA inspection took place in 1985; OSHA can inspect each facility once every 129 years); (2) a "chain reaction" of exemptions and less stringent standards (e.g., an OSHA process safety management retail exemption leads to streamlined attention under EPA's risk management plan program); (3) a lack of information sharing among state agencies (e.g., fire or explosion threats were viewed as beyond TCEQ's focus on "emissions" and not shared with other regulators); (4) a wave of criminal activity at certain kinds of chemical plants that threatens national security (e.g., regular theft of ammonia from the facility to cook methamphetamine; interference with tank valves causes leaks and spills; sparse security); (5) a range of voluntary safety codes and best practices that do not filter down to small, remote facilities (e.g., NFPA 400 "requirements," including those aimed at reducing the risk that a fire will cause an explosion, are voluntary if not adopted by state or local governments); (6) a worldwide effort to ban the use of pure ammonium nitrate in fertilizer that is ignored by companies in several U.S. states (e.g., the Department of Defense encourages foreign governments to police their fertilizer products after calcium ammonium nitrate from Pakistan's Fatima Group is found in improvised explosive devices in Iraq); and (7) a regular attempt post-9/11 to require companies to investigate inherently safer design under federal law that failed.

A similar array of narratives builds in Canada and Bangladesh. Outside of Quebec, a sleeping engineer either improperly applied the brakes or released them when he shut down a locomotive for the evening. But the 72 tanker cars, which carried oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota, are now the locus of debates over unconventional fuels, fracking, the comparative safety of pipeline and rail transport, Canada's inability to handle dramatic shifts in energy sources and its lack of a comprehensive energy policy, the pace of the shale boom and its strain on infrastructure, urban oil shipments and the opaque use of computer models to route them, and the rise of single-commodity rather than mixed freight and its attendant risks. The narratives that build in and around Dhaka are even more diverse, considering the scale of the tragedy, the country's ancient legal code, the near-uniformity of fire and safety shorfalls at its 4,000 garment factories, the regularity of factory fire deaths in the country, dueling multinational responses and accords, and the social movements that press for workplace safety and women's rights. Teasing apart the influence of these narratives on institutional change will require innovations in longitudinal and comparative case methods. But the slow-moving aftermath of disaster demands, and promises to reward, our sustained attention.

Posted by Gregg P. Macey on July 19, 2013 at 02:44 PM | Permalink

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Thank you for this review - the books sound fascinating, especially for those of us interested in looking for a deeper explanation of the regulatory stasis following the financial crisis.

Posted by: Jason W. | Jul 19, 2013 8:48:39 PM

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