by Michelle Miller and Marcel Bandur
On November 17-18th, the Asian Urbanisms Cluster at ARI hosted a two-day workshop on ‘Disaster Justice in Anthropocene Asia’. Organised by Michelle Miller and Mike Douglass, this interdisciplinary conference brought together 28 scholars representing 11 disciplinary backgrounds to show how research on environmental disasters in the Asia-Pacific region illuminates questions of disaster justice from historical and contemporary perspectives. The event combined the richness of on-the-ground research with new insights into how to conceptualize and govern disasters from normative as well as explanatory perspectives. Our central organising premise for the conference was that disaster justice as a moral claim on governance arises from anthropogenic interventions in nature that incubate disasters and magnify their socially and spatially uneven impacts. The conversations generated by the event yielded rich insights into how the changing geographies of vulnerability accompanying the urban transition in Asia and the Pacific are adding new dimensions to disaster governance and justice.
As all disasters occur in political space, disaster justice is situated in spheres of governance and in the context of the rapidly urbanizing societies of the Asia-Pacific that are increasingly impacted by the advent of the Anthropocene, namely, the destructive human transformations of nature that are significant drivers of environmental disasters. Growing awareness of human complicity in creating socially and spatially uneven vulnerabilities to disasters is generating discontents and mobilizations for disaster justice as moral claims for more effective and inclusive modes of disaster prevention, mitigation, management and redress. Posing disaster justice as a problem of governance thus covers a set of issues that encompass but are also differentiated from such allied concepts as environmental and climate justice. As intense events that cause widespread harm and overwhelm existing capacities to respond, disasters generate highly charged but exceptionally complex questions of justice. These factors, combined with the increasingly compound characteristics of environmental disasters (for instance, when a tsunami leads to a nuclear power plant meltdown) further complicate issues of justice in establishing causalities, attributing blame, identifying victims and (re-)establishing working solutions.
Keynote speaker Robert Verchik from Loyola University opened the conference by laying out the social, legal and policy dimensions of managing physical exposure to, and social vulnerabilities rooted in spatial inequalities to explicate the linkages between building community resilience and fighting disaster-related injustices. He emphasised that “in the Anthropocene, there is no such thing as a natural disaster”. Indeed, disaster justice as a moral claim on governance arises from anthropogenic interventions in nature that incubate disasters and magnify their socially and spatially uneven impacts.
D. Parthasarathy of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay opened the second day of the conference with a keynote address on the moral imperative of interrogating uncertainty at multiple scales of governance and from diverse perspectives as a pre-requisite for enhancing resilience, coping and adaptation for long-term disaster risk reduction in urbanising populations across the Asia-Pacific.
Isaac Kerlow from the Earth Observatory of Singapore screened his short film titled “Change”. The conference participants were only the 2nd audience to watch the film, after it premiered the day before. The short film explored the disruption of the Earth’s natural balance due to rapid changes caused by our growth and prosperity.
The conference included themed panels based on paper presentations that spoke to questions of historicising disaster justice, justice in anthropogenic disasters, the politics of inclusion and exclusion in disaster (in)justices, the role of civil society in claims for disaster justice, and a special panel on disaster justice in South Asian localities, namely India, Nepal and Bangladesh.
Given the interdisciplinary nature of the conference, the discussions generated significant insights drawing from a wide range of conceptual lenses and on-the-ground research.
Finding a consensus on the definition of Disaster Justice was not the goal of the conference. Rather, the conference highlighted what Disaster Justice mean for various communities and polities. The notion of Disaster Justice is yet to be played out, especially in light of raising consciousness regarding the anthropogenic essence of disasters. More importantly, this conference succeeded in fostering a diverse community of scholars and practitioners alike to draw Disaster Justice closer to the centre stage of academic and socio-political discourses.
Taken together, the conference surpassed expectations in pushing the parameters of theorising on the understudied concept of disaster justice within and beyond the rapidly urbanising societies of the Asia-Pacific, which are increasingly vulnerable to environmental disasters and their cascading impacts.