Come Hell or High Water: How the Melodrama of Disaster Leaves Us Vulnerable

Flooding on I-10. Image credit: Flickr user Dave Malkoff.
Flooding on I-10. Image credit: Flickr user Dave Malkoff.

When an event like the flooding in Louisiana takes place, destroying homes and disrupting and ending lives, media coverage shifts to a sober note. But the images of destruction and film reels of heroic rescuers suggest another, disconcerting dimension to catastrophe: disaster is a form of entertainment. It focuses attention, concentrates minds, and stimulates emotions. This is true in fiction, from The War of the Worlds to The Walking Dead. It’s also true in reality, where popular consciousness always seems fixed on one end-times scenario or the other, whether climate change catastrophe or Trumpocalypse or the rapture itself.

On the screen and in reality, the cocktail of horror, empathy, and heroism is magnetic.

But the transformation of carnage into spectacle can also create perverse incentives. In their new book, Dull Disasters?, Daniel J. Clarke and Stefan Dercon examine both the advantages and disadvantages of a fascination with apocalypse. In doing so, they show how the excitement of devastation can actually make it harder to prepare for catastrophes, leaving our society open to more devastation. In other words, there may be a high cost for all those apocalyptic fantasies.

Dull Disasters? How Planning Ahead Will Make a Difference
Daniel J. Clarke and Stefan Dercon
Oxford University Press, July 2016

Clarke, a disaster insurance specialist at the World Bank, and Dercon, an economist at Oxford and the Chief Economist of the UK’s Department of International Development, want to limit the damage of earthquakes, storms, and other natural catastrophes. In that context, the public attention that attends these catastrophes can seem like a boon. When there is an earthquake in Haiti or a hurricane in New Orleans, the authors point out, “the media usually beam within the country and across the world horrifying images of the suffering.”

That fascination isn’t just disaster voyeurism. It sparks concrete action. Politicians promise aid; celebrities encourage donations, and international agencies organize to help. Media attention can generate huge amounts of concrete assistance: following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, international donors pledged $854 million in aid to the United States. The United Arab Emirates promised cash and oil. Cuba offered to send 1,100 doctors. Italy sent medical supplies.

So far so good. The United States did not accept the vast majority of the aid offered, however. Although New Orleans faced huge infrastructure rebuilding costs, officials did not use many of the offered funds because of bureaucratic hurdles and general inefficiency and confusion.

In that respect, Katrina wasn’t unusual. Confusion and inefficiency in the aftermath of catastrophe is common. Once a disaster hits, it’s generally too late to contain the worst of the damage. Volunteer aid, like that after Katrina, is unpredictable and difficult to integrate into relief efforts. Political and bureaucratic concerns and conflicts need to be negotiated—are local or national authorities responsible? Would it be embarrassing for the United States to accept aid from Cuba? It takes time to work out these issues. While the clock ticks, people die.

What is needed, Clarke and Dercon argue, is a change in emphasis—rather than post-disaster attention saturation and volunteer “begging-bowl” donations, governments need to plan ahead. “We want to make disasters business as usual, not hand-wringing as usual,” the authors argue. Thus the book’s title; Dull Disasters means both that disasters’ effects will be dulled, and that the disasters themselves will become boring.

This may seem like common sense, but Clarke and Dercon’s argument isn’t just that governments need to plan more—it’s that this melodramatic theater of the apocalypse, the whole genre of disaster-as-entertainment, actually makes it harder for citizens and governments to take the steps they need to prepare for catastrophe.

The problem is that people don’t want dull disasters—or, at least, many parties benefit from the excitement caused by catastrophe. “[M]edia has a strong incentive to sell copy or images,” Dercon told me by email. “This means that the early stages of a drought are far less of interest than the later stages; or indeed, that a discussion of investments in preparedness is far duller than the excitement of relief operation (when it is too late).”

Politicians have perverse incentives in disasters too. “A humanitarian crisis allows the flags of nations and organizations to be planted, showcasing their generosity and success,” write Clarke and Dercon in the book. “Everyone wants to hug the limelight and show off their effectiveness.”

Studies in India show that declaring a state of emergency after a disaster can give politicians a boost in the polls during election years—but only during election years. The public forgets quickly, which means that there’s little incentive to create best practice plans and mechanisms for reducing the scale of disasters, since by election time no one is likely to remember. “Voters reward the delivery of disaster relief, but not investments in disaster preparedness,” the authors bleakly conclude.

The problem is that most of us see disaster, and disaster response, through a narrative of melodrama. Melodrama is known for excessive emotion, weeping, and cliché details—the heroine tied to the railroad track, for example, or the villain with the elaborate mustache.

Film scholar Linda Williams argues that melodrama is also one of the basic storytelling modes of modernity, and the central narrative form through which we understand democracy. Melodrama, Williams argues, is about injustice. It presents an evil, and then offers a solution to that evil. “Melodrama always offers the contrast between how things are and how they could be, or should be,” she writes in her recent book on the television show The Wire.

Ancient Greek tragedy presented stories in which characters had to accept their helplessness, or bend their sense of justice to the arbitrary whim of the gods. Melodrama, on the other hand, provides an incentive, or a context for, democratic change. Often in melodrama this change comes through a moment of “dramatic recognition of good and/or evil,” Williams writes. There is a narrative climax where the hero’s virtue is made manifest through some act of sacrifice, as when Sydney Carton goes to this death in A Tale of Two Cities, or when Superman saves the day in, well, any story where Superman saves the day.

You can see the bias towards the tropes of melodrama in the attitude towards climate change in the United States. Climate change deniers, of course, refuse to think about systemic problems altogether: for them, each extreme weather event is its own isolated exciting disaster, to be confronted and solved individually.

But even those who acknowledge climate change tend to fall into the narrative mode of apocalyptic melodrama, in which climate change is an evil incursion to be beaten back through some sweeping, heroic upwelling of virtuous self-abnegation.

The language of redemption and salvation is common in environmental rhetoric, even for relatively minor events. When Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia died, for example, news organizations ran headlines such as “Scalia’s Death May Have Saved the Planet.” Scalia was hostile to Obama’s climate change regulations, and the odds that those regulations would be declared unconstitutional dropped greatly when he died. But alterations in the makeup of the Supreme Court can’t change the fact that we’ve already pumped massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere—enough to change the climate significantly for as long as a thousand years into the future. We can’t “save the planet” in the melodramatic sense of restoring a just natural balance through some stroke of heroic effort.

That doesn’t mean we’re helpless. As Dercon told me, since we know that the earth is going to get warmer, and that weather disasters are going to be more likely, “we better ensure we are well-prepared to avoid extreme impacts.” We can’t save the planet from climate change, because climate change is already here, and we need to prepare to minimize damage.

“Only a minuscule fraction of climate change funding is invested in disaster preparedness,” Dercon told me, “even though climate change has reached levels now so that no amount of mitigation investment will be able to avoid this increased frequency of extreme weather events.”

The best way to deal with climate change is not as an existential end-times test of humanity’s virtue, but as a technical, bureaucratic, and political problem. If you get too caught up in the impossible task of saving the planet, you’ll miss the very possible, ground level opportunities to reduce harm.

Disaster, though, has a clarifying glamour. It promises to highlight virtue, to reveal iniquity, and to provide opportunities for bravery and endurance. It’s along these lines that some leftists find Trump appealing, precisely because he’ll bring about “consternation, confusion, dissension, disorder, chaos”—a stimulating narrative with a clear resolution.

Trump obviously doesn’t appeal to everyone, but the allure of apocalypse in some form seems almost universal. “I talk to kids in my practice and they see it as a good thing. They say, ‘life would be so simple—I’d shoot some zombies and wouldn’t have to go to school,'” said Steven Schlozman, a Harvard Medical School child psychiatrist, in an interview with Scientific American.

The truth is, it wouldn’t take much to start moving in a duller direction on disasters. If the United Nations and donor countries like the U.S. were willing to pledge resources before disasters rather than after, a good deal could be done to make disasters more predictable and more routine. To move in that direction, Dull Disasters very cleverly tries to enlist melodrama on behalf of bureaucratic preparedness. The evil out there, the authors say, is not the zombie apocalypse, or the alien invasion, or even climate change, but the fascination with apocalypse and disaster itself.

Clarke and Dercon tell a story about how our love of disaster is itself a kind of quiet, but dangerous, disaster. We need less “emotions, and adrenaline,” the authors insist, and “more tutorials on the principles of insurance.” We need actuaries to save us from the heroic saviors. We need, with all the fervor of melodrama, to expect, and demand, more boredom from our disasters.

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Also on The Cubit: The shared fantasies of ISIS and the Islamophobic right

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