August 7, 2015

John Mutter, jointly appointed professor of international and public affairs and professor of earth and environmental sciences, first came to Columbia in 1978 and has been a faculty member since earning his doctorate in marine geophysics in 1982. Over the years he has held numerous positions at the University, and has taught undergraduates and graduate students alike in areas ranging from sustainable development to marine seismology.

In 2006 Mutter joined the SIPA faculty as director of graduate studies for the PhD program in sustainable development, a position he still holds today. Mutter also created and teaches Environmental Science for Sustainable Development, a required course for PhD students that provides the basis of understanding Earth systems behavior in the context of sustainable development. His recent research has focused on the role of natural disasters in constraining development opportunities for poor and emerging societies—a subject touched on in his new book The Disaster Profiteers, the subject of a recent conversation with SIPA News.

You’ve told me that physical sciences are very much predictive, social sciences less so. What’s the relationship between the two with respect to natural disaster?

A natural disaster involves a physical phenomenon like a hurricane or an earthquake, while the true consequences are social phenomenon like multiple deaths and economic losses.  After the natural spasm happens, the natural scientists often leave the scene, and the social scientists take over. They think there’s little reason to have a conversation.

As we talk about in the sustainable development PhD program, you can’t think in a comprehensive way about problems that affect human progress from the perspective of just the natural sciences or just the social sciences. Natural disaster is one important example. Scientists, for instance, try to predict where and when earthquakes will occur and how large they might be. This has proven to be a very difficult and largely unsolved problem.  At least when you see a cyclone coming, you’ve got days to figure when and where it will make landfall and the strength when it makes landfall. But predicting everything that a scientist can predict [even in the most accurate case] won’t predict the death toll, economic damage, recovery time, or tell us how to recover. It tells us none of that.  It is a characteristic of the problem, not a failure of the science. 

The book notes how disasters have disparate impact in one region versus another, or even within different parts of the same disaster zone.

It’s obvious that whether we like it or not, the world is a very uneven place; people are at a different level of economic development, there are great differences in welfare of people across and within countries. If you land an earthquake in a poor place, the outcome is sure to be different from the outcome if it hits a rich place.

At least 100,000 people died in the Haiti earthquake in 2010. For Superstorm Sandy, the best estimate is that 171 people died in total, and here in the New York metropolitan area we had the largest proportion of that total. But that’s statistically zero if you think of the tens of millions that make up the population of the whole area affected.  Most people were more inconvenienced by Sandy than seriously impacted. 

It’s been said before, but these differences still surprise people. In poor countries, residential and commercial structures are relatively weak, and institutions to ensure otherwise don’t exist—or, if they exist, they don’t function well. After the Haitian earthquake, people said there were no building codes. There were building codes, just no ability to enforce them. It’s not a shocking thing—you see it here in New York City. It happens everywhere, just not as systematically.

What confuses people is that so-called economic losses are greater in wealthy countries, but that is simply because the capital stock has greater value.  It says nothing about the ability of a country to absorb a disaster shock.

What did you see in the aftermath of various disasters?

There’s a lot of media coverage at first because disasters are usually spectacular, but then it seems it gets boring. They take 1,000 feet of film of houses falling down, and then it’s not a story any more. I’ve watched the newspapers on this: Coverage moves from the front page to the inside, then toward the back until it’s gone. And the next time you see anything, it’s an anniversary. This year is 10 years since Hurricane Katrina, for example.

Go back to the beginning premise that we live in an uneven world, with uneven outcomes. In a disaster these inequalities get taken advantage of. Wealthy people have better information, and people will always take advantage. The excuse to do that is often provided by media exaggeration of antisocial behavior like supposed looting.  That changes the narrative profoundly—victims who need help are transformed into criminals who don’t deserve assistance. 

Using quasi-logic, [people argue that] the places most damaged in a disaster must be the most vulnerable, and therefore the wrong place to build back—it just happens to be that’s where all the poorest people live. But over decades and centuries, the rich have figured out where high safe lands are, and left the poor people the low lands. That separation repeats all over the world: the rich are in safe places, the poor are in unsafe places.

Inequalities are further exacerbated in a disaster because the rich can cope and the poor can’t. It exaggerates what’s already there. It increases the divide. And there’s a lot of reason to believe that some people see [crisis] as an occasion to reorganize the social order and solidify their own control.  I believe that means that disasters are part of the reason why inequalities are as large as they are today.  It’s not the whole reason, of course, but may be an unrecognized driver.  

The wake of a disaster is a time when nobody’s watching. The media aren’t watching, governments weaken; a lot of action happens that’s largely out of sight.

At the same time, you observe that disasters can have positive outcomes in addition to the obvious negative ones. Can you elaborate?

So the argument goes like this: In a society with rich and poor people, a disaster preferentially destroys poor people’s assets and weak infrastructure. So then, for example, if you replace a rickety old one-lane bamboo bridge with a cement-and-steel structure with two lanes in both directions, all of a sudden commerce is better, immediately and for years.

Beyond the temporary bump for the building industry that almost always happens, new airports, better ports, schools, and hospitals are lasting things that can provide direct public good. If you can rebuild in a way to improve conditions under which commerce takes place, you can improve the economy in theory. But there are not so many places you can show where this has actually happened, where the average person was better off.

Disaster creates opportunity, and people with influence can take advantage. A colleague at the Business School told me it would be great to fill in the New York subway system and start from scratch, but you can’t. Disasters allow you to start over again. In New Orleans, 100,000 poor people left and never returned—as a consequence the average income has increased because you took 100,000 poor people out of the average. The schools they’re building are charter schools, there’s a better hospital under construction, they’re promising a lot of things. So it’s better for some people, but not the 100,000 who got flushed out, or the remaining poor who will still not be able to afford the good schools.

Joseph Schumpeter wasn’t thinking about natural disasters, but he did write about the gale of creative destruction in business cycles—how, for instance electric lights put paraffin lamps out of business. No doubt the new thing is better than the old thing, but the old thing is destroyed in the process.

And the same outcome can take place whether the disaster area is in an authoritarian system or a democratic government or somewhere in between.

I didn’t realize this when I started writing. I thought I would look at x, y, and z and see differences between Myanmar [which was hit by a major cyclone in 2008] and New Orleans. But you find they’re almost identical; the leadership acted the same! The Myanmar junta didn’t fix the delta there, just like the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. It floored me that there would be this sort of analogy.

If a certain group suffers disproportionately in a disaster, what distinguishes whether you should rebuild?

When a place turns out to have been dangerous, we look at homeowners as if they were stupid to be there in the first place. But they weren’t there out of hubris. At Breezy Point in the Rockaways, nobody had told these homeowners that this was a dangerous place to live. In New Orleans, people had been herded to the Lower Ninth Ward below sea level.

My view is this: If you can protect people, you should. In New Orleans there’s now a huge system that’s going to protect against storm surge, which should have been in place before. MRGO [a shipping channel that exacerbated the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina] has been closed. The levees have been strengthened. If there’s another Katrina, they’d be OK. New Orleans is worth preserving, it’s a wonderful place, and we can afford it.

If you can’t protect it, like you can’t protect the Rockaways without a sea wall, you shouldn’t. Haiti remains a place that’s going to be prone to large earthquakes. If you can’t protect people in Port-au-Prince, you should make an effort to relocate the businesses that brought people there. It’s not a city of strong allegiances or great historic importance; if you give people a job elsewhere they’ll go. 

On writing The Disaster Profiteers

How did this book come about?

A couple of ways.  I met an agent who was looking for a type of writing that she thought didn’t exist. Scientists have written plenty of books for people in the sciences that aren’t really accessible to the general public. And there are books for the general public written by science journalists. She saw a broad area in the middle for a scientist to write for the general public—a need for a difference voice.  At the same time, even the scholarly literature has a wide gap—people in the natural sciences write to their colleagues in one set of journals, scholars in the social sciences do the same in a different set of publications.  I wanted to build some bridges. 

How were you able to fill those niches?

I have a dual appointment in both the natural sciences and policy school, which was interesting to the agent—she didn’t know anybody with similar positions. While I am not a social scientist by training, I spend a lot of time listening to economists and others and try to see things from their vantage point.  She thought the ability to write from the perspective of the natural and social sciences was important, and it’s true… she also encouraged me to keep it accessible. 

Does the publication of this book mean you’ve shifted from natural science to social science?

It’s not a shift, it’s an addition. I didn’t shift away, I try to add to how I think. I attend lectures, I talk to colleagues in the social sciences, I read… you’ll never hear me call myself an economist, but I can talk about the problem at hand and talk to people in the social sciences with some level of security. This need to straddle two forms of intellectual inquiry comes from the nature of the problem. If you’ve got a problem that cannot be solved by one or the other alone, to me you’re forced into it.  There is just no choice. 

How does this book tie in to what SIPA students might be studying?

I didn’t write it with the intention to be exemplary like that, but it does contain the sort of ideal that you have to think on both sides of the fence to make any headway with a problem in sustainable development. And you also have to think in a way that other people are not. Pick something others haven’t pushed so hard on, and look at it with binocular vision. I hope that students like it.

John Mutter discussed The Disaster Profiteers in an August 10 radio interview. Listen now