Ethical Action for Disaster Risk Reduction
“The relationship between science and ethics is complicated, thorny, and often misunderstood. Yet, there is great power and importance in connecting these two practices. If we are to rise to the challenges of the 21st century, we will need both in equal measure.”
—Michael Paul Nelson, “Ground Rules for Ethical Ecology,” American Scientist
Over the decades, disaster science has given us the vital data needed to systematically assess hazard risk, the impacts of extreme events, and much more. When coupled with disaster ethics, we can clarify the moral principles that guide action in light of all the knowledge that has been accumulated. At this year’s Workshop, we will contemplate the deep interconnections between facts and values as we work to express our ethical obligations to the people and communities we study and serve.
Much of our time, attention, and resources in the hazards and disaster field have been dedicated to improving research and its applications. As a result, we have an extraordinary amount of potentially life-saving information at our fingertips. Available data allows us to visualize vulnerabilities in our social, built, and natural environments and more accurately characterize which people and places are most at risk to floods, fires, and myriad other threats. But as Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson convincingly argue in Moral Ground, "No amount of factual information will tell us what we ought to do. For that, we need moral convictions—ideas about what it is to act rightly in the world, what it is to be good or just, and the determination to do what is right. Facts and moral convictions together can help us understand what we ought to do—something neither alone can do."
Studies show that people of color, people living in poverty, older adults, children, and other socially marginalized groups repeatedly suffer disproportionate harm in disasters. A sharply focused ethical lens can help us decide what to do with this information—whether that entails advancing stronger preparedness efforts or working to change the systems that render these groups vulnerable in the first place. Centering ethics in our conversations concerning research and applications encourages us to explicitly articulate what and who we value and how our actions, in turn, honor those values. Of course, such conversations often reveal the underlying truth that not everyone shares the same principles and priorities. This diversity of perspective underscores why it is so important to clarify our ethical stances in response to the data we have about disaster loss.
Achieving such personal and professional clarity can strengthen the ways that we communicate with decision makers and diverse groups in the broader public. Social science research on risk communication and messaging has shown that inundating people with statistics and doomsday scenarios rarely elicits desired behavioral changes. But when we couple facts with expression of a moral imperative, we can inspire individual and collective action. Members of our community often do this implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, when working to reduce the damage and suffering caused by disasters.
At this year’s Workshop, we will work together to apply an ethical action framework to explore questions such as:
- What ethical obligations do we hold toward those whom we study and serve, as well as to ourselves as members of the hazards and disaster workforce?
- Where have we reached scientific consensus, and is there a related ethical consensus about what we should do in response to available disaster-related information?
- What additional research and actions are needed to ensure that stated resource commitments reach disadvantaged communities?
- How do our moral commitments shape our responses to interlocking emergencies concerning the environment, economic inequality, homelessness, migration, and other stressors?
- How can we use both scientific knowledge and moral wisdom to explain our work to those best positioned to create systemic change?
- What do we most value—culturally, spiritually, economically—that may be forever lost if we fail to collectively act to reduce social vulnerability and mitigate hazard risk?
So much has happened in our world and in people’s lives since we last met in person in 2019. Through the ongoing pandemic and a seemingly unending stream of disasters, the members of this community have continued doing transformative work that is worth sharing. This is why the Natural Hazards Center team is so eager to welcome you back to Colorado for this year’s Workshop, which will be held Sunday, July 9 through Wednesday, July 12, 2023. As always, we look forward to listening to and learning from each of you.
Please take care of yourself and others,
Lori Peek, Director
Natural Hazards Center