Downfall as Transformation: David Chandler’s Relationalist Disaster Reduction and Risk Management

[Image credit: Jocelyn Augustino / FEMA Photo 15022 Creative Commons (New Orleans, 2005)]

‘We are producing and consuming disasters’. For Professor David Chandler and other advocates of relational ontology this is the epiphany of the ‘advent of the anthropocene’.

As part of the JEFCAS Seminar Series, David Chandler spoke about the genealogy behind disaster risk management and reflexive governance. Armed with ‘virtual power points’ offering comparisons between traditional ‘first responses’, the Hyogo Agreement, and the Sendai framework, Chandler pulled back the curtain on relational ontology as de facto reality.

Ulrich Beck, whom Chandler referenced, writes of this new world, or more precisely a metamorphosis, or verwandlung: global metamorphosis. A world where everything and our perception of everything is in flux: boundaries adjusted by disaster, shocks that ‘induce a basic sense of ethical and existential violation’, and the delegitimization of ‘methodological nationalism’. In effect, metamorphosis exposes the ‘disconnection between those who produce risk and those who experience it’.

Indeed, this is Chandler’s main point: ‘we are producing and consuming disaster’. Beck highlights this process as having ‘emancipatory catastrophism’, meaning that these shocks (be they climate, financial, or violent atrocity), can further the cause of justice by unmasking ecological and human abuses and inequalities. The prime example of this used by Beck and Chandler is the catastrophe and shock of Katrina: was it the fact that the space of communities had been wiped away, or that communities were undeserving of empathy, but deserving of militarized “disaster relief”? What became apparent were the injustices of the anthropocene and persistent racism in the US.

Comparing the traditional Kyogo and recent Sendai frameworks, Chandler reaches the conclusion that we are moving, or experiencing verwandlung, toward a relational ontology. This is producing the seeds of reflexive, or everyday governance. Neoliberal localism (seen in the UK as decentralizing governing to local councils without budget, forcing privatization and public spending cuts) and the rationality of markets is evolving into acknowledgement of everyday practice and localism that is somewhat more authentic in its focus on local knowledge and environment.

Deeper into Chandler’s relational account is another wholesale recognition of the failure of modernity. This drum has been thoroughly banged out by critical theorists and postmodernists, however, relational ontology takes a different tact. It appeals to a holistic, neo-cosmopolitanism that is no longer aspirational, but “real” in terms of facing the existential challenges to humanity and the ever the increasing shocks we produce. There is a prophecy lodged in here for radical democracy, contingent on reflexive governance. Without this promise ‘disaster risk management’ could evolve into a dystopian future of totalitarian proportions.

The acknowledgement of the existential threat and associated daily/deadly risks, borne by the least among us, must recognize risk production by the beneficiaries contemporary living. But this is the saliency of the arguement: when we relate within ourselves as humanity, we can see the disconnection and toxic productions framed within the overall threat. Thereby making it possible to avoid futures such as those described by M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening where Gaia gets revenge, or a Planet of the Apes future where humans regress in the face of their own progress.

The ‘fragility of things’ then becomes our prime concern along with the embracing of self-organization outside of ourselves as part of verwandlung.



Ulrich Beck, Emancipatory catastrophism: What does it mean to climate change and risk society?, Current Sociology 63(1), (2015)

James Lovelock, Revenge of Gaia (2007), Observer book review

William Connolly, The Fragility of Things (2013)


Further reading:

David Chandler’s professional page (Links to his blog)

David Chandler, Resilience: The Governance of Complexity (2014)

Hyogo Agreement site

Sendai Agreement site

Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies (2012)


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