So many potential disasters have happened in recent years or seem to be on the horizon: pandemics, climate disasters, military or terrorist disasters. Are there any that worry you the most? Conversely, are there any you think society is more prepared for now than it was 20 years ago?
This may seem off-brand for someone like me, but honestly we are more prepared for all of them. A lot of money and effort has been invested in systems for response, countermeasures, and information analysis that is materially helpful. Despite my criticism of our disaster management approaches, I know we are better today than we were yesterday. The issue is that we are not as prepared as we should be given all that we have invested and all that we know. And we need to look at how we can be more prepared tomorrow than we are today.
What books have you read lately that you would recommend, and why?
Two books I always recommend are The Strategy Paradox by Michael E. Raynor, and Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, edited by Reza Aslan.
The Strategy Paradox looks at the need to manage uncertainty, and how we are often forced to make commitments before we have enough information to do so. It lays out different techniques for framing uncertainty, and ultimately defeating the paradox through creating and sustaining options instead of making commitments prematurely. This is an invaluable skill in disaster management, and I found myself using these approaches throughout the pandemic, professionally and personally.
Tablet and Pen is a translation project, taking poems, short stories and other literary pieces from the Middle East in different eras. Each chapter begins with a brief description of what was happening geopolitically during that era. The rest of each chapter is works written during that time. It is amazing to see the depth of emotion and the types of work written under the auspices of global events, but often not overtly about those events. This approach creates a new perspective of how it may have felt for many during each era through exploring what was funny, tragic, and otherwise relevant. It is an important window into the experience of the past that this book captures in a way that few others have for me.
What’s next on your reading list?
Mostly e-mails, discussion board posts and class assignments. But in my spare time I am reading Cities at War: Global Insecurity and Urban Resistance edited by Mary Kaldor and Saskia Sassen.
What are you teaching this fall?
This fall I am teaching a course called “Climate Change and Disaster Management.” It is part of the MA in Climate and Society program and is the first course in a new area of specialization in Disaster Risk Management for students in that program. The course covers a range of areas related to disasters, and how they come together to shape how we prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.
You’re hosting a dinner party. Which three thinkers, dead or alive, would you invite, and why? Is there anyone from history you think would have deep and helpful insight into disaster preparedness?
I had the privilege of taking a class in my undergraduate degree with the playwright Ntozake Shange. She exposed us to new works and perspectives that really re-shaped my academic trajectory. I would love her take on where we are and where we are going.
The humor columnist Erma Bombeck is someone I know mostly from her quotes as being funny and on point. I would love to hear more and I think she would be insightful with some much-needed humor in the conversation as well.
I don’t know who the third would be, but someone at the head of a large historical catastrophe. Maybe a Baron during the black plague, or Herbert Hoover, who was president during the Great Depression. Not one of these historical figures was praised for their success and leadership. I fear I may end up disappointed by their egos and flaws. But I’d want someone who failed, and could either reflect on it wisely, or double-down and illustrate the leadership red flags in the face of uncertainty that made things worse.