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How language shapes disaster response and resilience

A stand of burnt trees in  Kosciusko National Park.
Are we 'battling' the forces of nature, or working with them? Photo: Evan Collis

The way we talk about disasters – events such as the catastrophic bushfires of Australia’s 2019-20 summer – plays into the way we think about them and, critically, respond.

Speakers at a recent webinar on ‘Disaster resilience and sustainability’ hosted by the University of Melbourne discussed climate change, shifting social values and improved management. But as someone who works with words, I was drawn to a few points raised about language.

Fear and harm

Among the speakers was emergency management expert Mark Crossweller, formerly head of the National Resilience Taskforce.

Mark Crossweller suggested that the fear of potential harm is as much a contributor to the trauma people experience during disasters, as actual harm suffered.

By extension, reducing the fear factor could help reduce the extent of harm and improve resilience and recovery.

Nonetheless, he added that the power of nature should be feared, so the issue is fear management.

“I think we have to accept the inevitability of these events – not as ‘disasters’, but as ‘events’.

"They are an expression of the force of nature. They have been with us forever. They will be with us forever. But it doesn't have to be disastrous.”

Language might be a minor point in overall preparedness and management strategies, but it plays into what he sees as the larger picture of resilience: “If you don't get harm out of the system, it's not possible to be resilient,” he said.

Degrees of separation

Both he and fellow speaker Associate Professor Michael-Shawn Fletcher discussed the need for a long-term approach to develop a closer relationship between people and the landscapes in which they live.

Dr Fletcher is Assistant Dean, Indigenous, at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Science and is descended from the Wiradjuri people.

He referred to the “us and them” language and approach that separates people from nature and natural systems. This dualism has created a barrier that he believes contributes to some of the problems we’re facing including climate change, catastrophic bushfires and species extinction.

And the way we view nature is reflected in the language used to talk about it.

“You can really see it present in things like our approaches to bushfire,” Dr Fletcher said.

“We have a paramilitary operation around ‘fighting’ and ‘containing’ and ‘battling’ fire rather than fulfilling obligations in the landscape …

"We ‘battle’, ‘contain’, then switch off once the danger is over and then face it again rather than continuously embedding ourselves in the world around us."

Vast areas of Kosciusko National Park show little sign of recovery decades after an intense fire. Photo: Brad Collis

A poor excuse

In the context of news reporting and responsibility - for example, the findings of bushfire inquiries - Mark Crossweller also highlighted the use and abuse of the term 'unprecedented'.

He acknowledged the “statistical reality” of the term:

“But unprecedented should not mean surprising and unprecedented should not mean absence of accountability.

“We have foreshadowed and forecast these intense events for 20 or 30 years in our science. The extent to which we position for them is variable. Some aspects of institutions and society have prepared well, but others have not.”

He said using 'unprecedented' in the context of climate change as an excuse for not being ready is “difficult to rationalise”.

Further consideration

The way words and language can be used as shields against reality or responsibility was a small, but fascinating aside to the webinar and worthy of more thought if we are to properly consider ourselves part of the landscape in which we make our homes.

The ‘Disaster resilience and sustainability’ webinar where these points were raised was hosted by the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Science and Melbourne School of Engineering in September 2020. Other speakers were Professor Abbas Rajabifard, Director of Sustainability for Melbourne School of Engineering and Dr Gillian Sparkes, Victorian Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability.


Read more about the webinar in the article ‘Community resilience depends on cultural shift' or watch the recorded webinar here.

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