Publication Type: Book Chapter
Source: Workshop "How do you manage? Unravelling the situated practice of environmental management" (2012)
Keywords: civic protection
, cosmopolitics of recognition
, Natural disasters
, sociotechnical systems of recognition
Two days after an earthquake and a tsunami hit the Southern region of Chile in February 2010, the Chilean Minister of National Defence declared: ``What we saw occurring at the coast, from the regions 6th to the 8th, is a tsunami, here and in Burundi; and a mistake was made''. Hereby, the State Secretary was not just stating the obvious, namely, that a tsunami had taken place, but taking a clear position in the midst of a heated controversy about the failure of the tsunami warning system, which remained inactivated during the event, contributing thus to the loss of 181 lives. The Minister's reference to Burundi, a landlocked country where no tsunamis are possible, was an attempt to emphasize that the tsunami, as a natural phenomenon, was to be universally, univocally and immediately recognized as such. If this did not occur, this could only be the result of human errors in the institutional agencies responsible for the monitoring of natural disasters and civil protection.
Things, however, are more complicated. During the night of the catastrophe, two supposedly univocal sets of relations unexpectedly became highly problematic: Firstly, the modelled rela- tionship between the occurrence of an earthquake and the occurrence of a tsunami was put into question, becoming unclear which conditions were sufficient for a tsunami to occur. Secondly, the distinction between tsunami alert and alarm became also highly problematic, and with this the practical connection between the activation of a tsunami alarm and of civil protection pro- grams. In more institutional terms, this went along with a crisis in the relationships between the Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service of the Chilean Navy(SHOA) and the National Office of Emergencies (ONEMI). Beyond this, and given that each of these two sets of problem- atic relationships are embedded in large sociotechnical networks, it becomes almost impossible to ascribe individual responsibilities. Thus, apparently straightforward matters, such as what counts as a tsunami and what is a tsunami alert, pose huge sociotechnical challenges for the future improvement of these systems.
In my presentation, I will present the results of my ongoing research on this case, focusing on one of the key cosmopolitical challenges this involved: the problem of recognition of non-human entities. I would like to explore this problem in two senses, both evident in the Chilean case Firstly, there is the problem of producing and managing information that allows for a rapid and precise recognition of the probabilities of tsunami occurrence. Secondly, a more fundamental problem concerns the re-cognition of tsunamis, in the sense of knowing them anew as integral parts of a common world, which involves shifting the boundary between nature and society.