Tag Archives: social memory

Historical memory is not what it used to be

The future is shaped by how we think the past occurred and worked. Andreas Huyssen, in his book Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory, introduces his book by writing:

“Historical memory today is not what it used to be. It used to mark the relation of a community or a nation to its past, but the boundary between past and present used to be stronger and more stable than it appears to be today. Untold recent and not so recent pasts impinge upon the present through modern media of reproduction like photography, film, recorded music, and the internet, as well as through the explosion of historical scholarship and an ever more voracious museal culture. The past has become part of the present in ways simply unimaginable in earlier centuries. As a result, temporal boundaries have weakened just as the experiential dimension of space has shrunk as a result of modern means of transportation and communication.

In times not so very long ago, the discourse of history was there to guarantee the relative stability of the past in its pastness. Traditions, even though themselves often invented or constructed and always based on selections and exclusions, gave shape to cultural and social life. Built urban space – replete with monuments and museums, palaces, public spaces, and government buildings – represented the material traces of the historical past in the present. But history was also the mise-en-scene of modernity. One learned from history. That was the assumption. For about two centuries, history in the West was quite successful in its project to anchor the even more transitory present of modernity and the nation in a multifaceted but strong narrative of historical time. Memory, on the other hand, was a topic for the poets and their visions of golden age, or conversely, for their tales about the hauntings of a restless past. Literature was of course valued highly as part of the national heritage constructed to mediate religious, ethnic, and class conflicts within a nation. But the main concern of the 19th century nation-states was to mobilize and monumentalize national and universal pasts so as to legitimize and give meaning to the present and environ the future: culturally, politically and socially. This model no longer works. Whatever the specific content of the many contemporary debates about history and memory may be, underlying them is a fundamental disturbance not just of the relationship between history as objective and scientific, and memory as subjective and personal, but of history itself and its promises. At stake in the current history/memory debate is not only a disturbance of our notions of the past, but a fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures.

from Polis

Impacts of the 2010 tsunami in Chile

UPDATE: Here is a link to a video to Prof. Castilla’s talk (via @sthlmresilience)

03:34 a.m. February 27th 2010. Suddenly, a devastating earthquake and a series of tsunamis hits the central–south coast of Chile. An earthquake so powerful (8.8 on the moment magnitude scale), that not only is the fifth largest recorded on earth, but also moves the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina, 10 feet (!) to the west.

Juan Carlos Castilla from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, recently visited Stockholm, and gave an update about the tsunamis’ impact on coastal communities. The effects of the tsunami were devastating, and the death toll from the 2-3 tsunamis alone was between 170-200 in the coastal areas of regions VI, VII and VIII. The most noticeable biophysical impact in the region is the elevation of the whole coastal area, ranging from 1.5 to 3 meters. This obviously has had big impacts on the composition of species and vegetation on the coast. The impacts on coastal ecosystems and fisheries is however still unclear.

Based on extensive field studies two months after the disaster, Castilla and his research team noted that only 8-12 (about 6%) of the 200 deceased where from fisherman families. According to Castilla, this low figure can be explained by the existence of strong social networks, and local knowledge passed on from generation to generation. As an artisan fisherman in the study, summarized one shared local saying:

“if an earthquake is so strong you can not stand up: run to the hills”

Luckily, February 27th was a night of full moon. This allowed people to more easily run for protection in the hills. According to Castilla, the combination of full moon, local knowledge, and strong bonds between neighbors, made it possible for members of fishermen communities to rapidly act on the first warning signal: the earthquake. The fact that locals also were taught not to leave the hills after at least a couple of hours after an earthquake, also helped them avoid the following devastating tsunamis. Unfortunately, visitors and tourists in the tsunami affected coastal areas, were not.

Read more:

Marín, A et al. (2010) ”The 2010 tsunami in Chile: Devastation and survival of coastal small-scale fishing communities”, Marine Policy, 2010, 34:1381-1384.

Gelchich, S et al. “Nagivating transformations in governance of Chilean marine coastal resources”, PNAS, 107(39): 16794-16799.

See Henrik’s post just the days after the Chilean earthquake here.

Australian fires

From ABC News

The deadly Australian bushfires appear to have been so deadly because they were unusual.  The fires caught people before they new it was coming, and unlike many fires they were too strong to fight.  What made these fires unusual?  At first look it seems to be a combination of a lack of social memory, fuel accumulation, and climate change – that together reduced community resilience to fire.

From the New Scientist’s Short sharp science blog Time for a new Australian bushfire policy?

Australia has a national fire-preparedness policy, perhaps uniquely, of encouraging people to either “stay and defend or leave early”. But as the tragedy continues to unfurl there will be increasing pressure to reexamine a policy developed for conditions that existed half a century ago.

The rationale behind the policy is that if you have a fire plan in place – that is, you have a water source, a pump that is not dependent on the power supply, you have ember-proofed your house, and so on – it is safer to stay and let the front pass over, than to leave at the last moment. And historically, it is true that most houses lost in bush fires have burnt because of defendable ember-strikes rather than direct contact with the fire, and most deaths have been due last-minute evacuations.

But conditions have changed. Southern Australia’s epic 12-year drought, higher temperatures due to climate change, and less “prescribed” burning to remove the plant life that acts as fuel, all combine to increase the risk of extreme fire. This year already, we’ve had several days in the mid-40s that have burnt leaves off trees, and squeezed the last drops of moisture out of already tinder-dry bush. One survivor described the ground underfoot prior to the fires going through as “like walking on cornflakes”.

Under those conditions, a fire plan may simply not be enough, as Victoria’s premier John Brumby told the Fairfax Radio Network today: “There is no question that there were people there who did everything right, put in place their fire plan and it wouldn’t matter, their house was just incinerated.” Brumby wants the policy rexamined.

People have changed too. Small towns like devastated Marysville – 90 minutes’ drive northeast of Melbourne – as well as the ever-expanding fire-prone city fringes, are as likely to be home to retirees and “treechangers” (city people who move to the country for a life change) as they are to families with generations of bushfire experience.

One of the commonest reasons for people who intend to stay and defend their properties to change their mind and leave at the last moment is that with no direct experience of fire they are not prepared psychologically.

According to Robert Heath, a psychologist at the University of South Australia in Adelaide, they don’t bank on the overwhelming heat, the lack of contact with the outside world, the darkness, or the noise: loud and like a huge blowtorch, apparently. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that many people who lost their lives are thought to have done so while fleeing in their cars.

For more details see:

Thanks to Arijit Guha for pointers.