Disasters, From risk culture to confronting uncertainty

Namur (Wallonia), May 5, 2023

The Regional Policy Declaration of 16 September 2019 indicated the desire of the Government of Wallonia to implement risk management tools to warn and react quickly in crises and during climate and health hazards [1]. The declaration also stated that measures would be adopted to protect water resources, particularly in the face of contamination risks, the need to maintain and develop natural wetland habitats, and supply problems [2]. There was also a need to anticipate other types of risks, such as digital and health risks (exposure to flooding [3]), risks leading to the exclusion and poverty [4], and chemical risks (phytosanitary [5]).

The major events experienced by Wallonia since the adoption of this document – the Covid-19 pandemic, climate stresses (brutal floods in 2021 with nearly 40 deaths, drought in 2022), and the multifactor energy crisis – have challenged all actors and citizens. The impacts of these events were, and still are, significant, even if they have been felt and experienced differently according to stakeholders and location. The pandemic did not affect the various regions in the same way: it had a greater impact on regions with higher population density, the flood-affected valleys where the presence of significant urbanisation and the resulting creation of artificial ground coverings was called into question, and the drought and heatwaves affected countryside and urban areas in different ways. In addition to housing density, there are other vulnerabilities and risk exposure factors, such as increasing age, the low socio-economic level of many residents, and their ability to meet the challenges, in other words, their resilience. There are also structural risk management issues across all sectors and at all administrative levels [6]. Location is also critical where the effects of the energy crisis are concerned: heating costs, travel costs, access to fossil fuels and renewable energies, etc. One could also examine the impacts of terrorism – which sometimes seems to have emerged from our intellectual outlook – in the light of location.

Photo Igor Kutnii – Dreamstime


1. The risks are associated with perfectly describable events

Twenty years ago, Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes and Yannick Barthe observed that the notion of risk is closely linked to the notion of rational decision-making. In their view, rational decision-making requires three conditions to be met before the decision-maker can draw comparisons between the options available to them. Firstly, there is the ability to draw up an exhaustive list of the available options. Next, for each option, the decision-maker must be able to describe the elements and entities that make up the world assumed by that option. Finally, an inventory must be produced of the significant interactions that are likely occur between the various elements and entities. Consequently, the authors highlight the notion of possible states of the world, which are like the scenarios used by futurists [7].

With some adjustments and amendments, the recommendations made by the OECD in its report entitled Boosting Resilience through Innovative Risk Governance (2014) could serve as the basis for a new approach to regional and territorial development matters:

– promoting future-oriented risk governance and taking account of complex risks;

– emphasising the role of trust and highlighting the long-term action taken by the public authorities to protect the population;

– adoption of a common definition of acceptable risk levels by stakeholders at all levels;

– defining an optimal array of tangible and intangible resilience measures (infrastructure measures and planning measures, for instance);

– adopting a whole society approach in order to involve all stakeholders in boosting resilience;

– acknowledging the important role played by institutions and institutional blocks in the effectiveness of risk management measures in order to increase resilience levels;

– using diagnostic frameworks to identify institutional barriers and to restructure incentives to promote resilience [8].

In Risk Society, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck (1944-2015) went further, pointing out that risks were not only about the consequences and damage that occur, but that they could also indicate a future that had to be prevented from happening. Our awareness of the risk lies not in the present but principally in the future, he writes [9]. Futurists know this: they manipulate the wild cards to identify the jokers that may appear in our trajectory, and they use them as stress tests for the system and as a means of measuring the extent to which such events can be transformed into genuine opportunities to implement a desirable vision of the future.


2. Uncertainty, the product of our ignorance

Although the terms risk and uncertainty are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Risk indicates a clearly defined danger associated with the occurrence of a perfectly describable event or series of events; it is not known if such events will occur, but it is known that they may occur [10]. Where statistical tools can be employed, risk is defined as the probability of an undesirable or unwanted event occurring and the scale of the impact of such an occurrence on the variable or system according to its vulnerability. Therefore, in addition to the probability factor regarding an event occurring, there is also a severity factor regarding the consequences of the event. This results in a third, subjective, factor which, based on the first two factors, assesses, and possibly quantifies the level of risk [11].

It is because the notion of risk plays a central role in the theory of rational decision-making and in the choice it assumes between several states of the world, or scenarios, that it is sensible – as stated by Callon et al. – to reserve its use for such perfectly codified situations [12]. Consequently, in uncertain situations, use of this notion of risk makes it impossible to list and to precisely describe either the options available to the decision-maker or the possible states of the world through which reliable foresight can be developed.

Uncertainty is the product of our incomplete knowledge of the state of the world – past, present or future –, observe the economists John Kay (University of Oxford) and Mervyn King (London School of Economics) [13]. Frequently, as highlighted by their French colleague Philippe Silberzahn, uncertainty results not from our difficulty in acquiring information, but from the fact that this information does not exist – or not yet [14]. The fundamental inability to predict the result of the change based on probability diverts us from risk culture. In his work Noise, A Flaw on Human Judgment, Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, uses the concepts of objective ignorance (the absolute limit of our ability to predict), imperfect information (what could be known but is not), and irreducible uncertainty (what it is impossible to know). This form of semantic radicalisation, in which Kahneman, a professor at Princeton, uses the word ignorance where we generally use uncertainty, allows him to limit the confusion with noise. Noise, which can be conceived as random dispersal, is also a form of uncertainty. It affects not only the state of the world, but also the judgments we make. Kahneman also uses this semantic change to warn us that we systematically underestimate objective ignorance, and therefore uncertainty. The internal signal is a self-administered reward, one people work hard (or sometimes not so hard) to achieve when they reach closure on a judgment. It is a satisfying emotional experience, a pleasing sense of coherence, in which the evidence considered and the judgment reached feel right [15].

In a broadened natural, political, economic, social and cultural space and a complex world, the constant emergence [16] of new factors and actors makes it impossible to build up and to have at our disposal reasonable, if not complete, knowledge of the environment and its effects – including disruptive effects – on the system and, therefore, of how the system will evolve.


3. Dealing with uncertainty

As the authors of Acting in an uncertain world have shown, in uncertain situations, foresight is impossible for decision-makers due to a lack of specific knowledge about the behaviours and interactions of the elements that make up the system, and of the actors and factors that constitute the environment. But ignorance is not inevitable and thinking in terms of uncertainty will in itself help to facilitate better understanding [17].

Ignorance is not new, and it did not emerge in the 21st century. What is new, and hopefully increasing, is awareness of this ignorance. However, as highlighted in a text produced back in 1982 by Daniel Kahneman and his psychologist colleague from Stanford University Amos Tversky (1937-1996), uncertainty is a fact with which all forms of life must be prepared to contend. For Kahneman and Tversky, the inventors of Prospect Theory [18], at all levels of biological complexity there is uncertainty about the significance of signs or stimuli and about the possible consequences of actions. At all levels, action must be taken before the uncertainty is resolved, and a proper balance must be achieved between a high level of specific readiness for the events that are most likely to occur and a general ability to respond appropriately when the unexpected happens[19].

Although the disruptive shocks we have experienced since the start of 2020 could be anticipated, their magnitude and complexity have taken all analysts by surprise [20]. It is possible that disasters of this type may happen again, and that others, which are currently of little or no concern, may happen in the future.

It therefore seems essential to question the various policies adopted in the light of new emergences, disasters, or other potential risks, whether natural or anthropogenic, a distinction which is difficult to draw on account of the increasing transformation of biophysical environments [21]. The concept of disaster can be enriched not only by its etymology, which indicates a sudden, dreadful shock causing significant loss of life, but also by systemics through the works of the mathematicians René Thom (1923-2002) and Erik Christopher Zeeman (1925-2016). It is therefore a question of discontinuities [22] that may arise in the evolution of a variable or system, leading to changes in its morphological stability. Consequently, disasters have more to do with system inputs and parameter space than with the changes they bring about. For Zeeman, a disaster occurs where a continuous variety of causes leads to a discontinued variation in effects [23].

The French geographer Jérôme Dunlop notes, in turn, that whereas a risk results from the combination of a vulnerability and a hazard, whose possible occurrence would destroy all or part of the stakes exposed to it (humans and wealth), the term disaster is used where the destroyed stakes are considered significant by the human group affected. The magnitude of the risk itself varies according to how high the stakes are and how probable it is that the hazard will occur. Human occupation also increases the probability of risks occurring in natural environments. The risk of flooding is generally increased through urbanisation of the major river basins and water courses and through the impermeablisation of the ground resulting from development of road networks and urban growth, and through changes in agricultural landscapes.[24] Consequently, the historian Niall Ferguson, professor at Oxford and at Harvard, rightly observes that the distinction between natural disasters and disasters caused by humans is purely artificial. There is, he notes, constant interaction between human societies and nature. The example he gives is one we have highlighted previously when referring to the Lisbon disaster: an endogenous shock destroyed human life and health according to the proximity of residents to the place of impact [25].


Conclusion: disruptive shocks as opportunities for structural transformations in a system that is initially cumbersome or blocked

There is a new focus on the global impact of humanity on the earth system as a whole. This is what we refer to today as the Anthropocene, interpreting this era as a rupture[26]. One could argue, therefore, that if human activity has affected nature in such a way that natural, hydrometeorological and geophysical disasters are on the rise, resulting in large numbers of victims, it is today essential for us to gain a clearer understanding of disasters and to anticipate risks [27].

For several decades, the research has recognised the vulnerability of territories and communities. Vulnerability, referred to above, could be described as a circumstance or a context specific to certain groups (or territories) which find themselves in a fragile situation in relation to certain risks, a situation caused by the constant social construction of risks. From that perspective, resilience would indicate the development, by the group or territory, of capabilities to deploy processes – which affect practices – to reduce their vulnerability to certain risks [28]. Researchers have created new concepts for understanding this phenomenon and identifying its various types: differential or differentiated vulnerability, accumulated vulnerability, and global vulnerability, etc. Now that our focus has been increased through the shocks we are experiencing in practice, we need to translate these questions into public and collective anticipation and prevention policies by determining, space by space, territory by territory, which risks we are facing, what our vulnerabilities are, and how the global vulnerabilities vary from place to place. Lastly, although there are links between vulnerability, underdevelopment and poverty, it appears that the ability to recover from a disaster and prepare for risks is more critical than the level of poverty [29] Analysis of risk factors, including climate-related [30], is encouraged by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR, formerly UNISDR) [31]. The works produced by this institution, particularly its assessment reports, may help to construct a helpful methodological framework.

In addition, we cannot ignore one of the conclusions of the works of the anthropologist and historian Virginia Garcia-Acosta, namely that the recurring presence of certain natural phenomena, such as storms, has led certain groups of humans to make cultural changes in their lives and in their material organisation, which may result in the implementation of survival strategies and adaptation possibilities [32]. As previously indicated by Edgar Morin in La Méthode, when mentioning the concept of disaster, the rupture and disintegration of an old form is the very process by which the new form is created [33]. In other words, disruptive shocks may represent genuine opportunities for structural transformations in a system that is initially cumbersome or blocked.

Any approach to risks and disasters involves grasping the issue of acceptable risk in a strategy and its implementation in practice, and therefore also addressing the difficult question of the precautionary principle, with the multiple regional development and land management tools [34].

Equipping ourselves with predictive tools, devices and processes for confronting uncertainty represents basic good sense for all forms of contemporary governance in our societies [35]. This approach would also mean that disruptive shocks could be regarded as opportunities for structural transformations in a system which initially seems cumbersome or blocked when faced with the scale of the challenges.


Philippe Destatte


[1] Déclaration de Politique régionale wallonne, 2019-2024, Namur, 16 septembre 2019, 122 p., p. 75. https://www.wallonie.be/sites/default/files/2019-09/declaration_politique_regionale_2019-2024.pdf

[2] Ibidem, p. 82.

[3] Ibidem, p. 90.

[4] Ibidem, p. 117.

[5] Ibidem, p. 118.

[6] In his report Boosting Resilience through Innovative Risk Governance, OECD Reviews of Risk Management Policies, p. 16, Paris, OECD, 2014, OECD writes: Nearly all OECD countries systematically consider disaster risk in sectoral public investment strategies and planning. the importance attributed to the local responsibilities, including risk sensitive regulation in land zoning and private real estate development – Also see: Bassin de la Loire, France, Étude de l’OCDE sur la gestion des risques d’inondation, Paris, OECD, 2010.

[7] Michel CALLON, Pierre LASCOUMES & Yannick BARTHES, Acting in an uncertain world: An essay on technical democracy, Harvard, MIT Press, 2009. p. 37-39 of the Paris, Seuil, 2001 edition.

[8] Boosting Resilience through Innovative Risk Governance, OECD Reviews of Risk Management Policies, p. 17-18, Paris, OECD, 2014.

[9] Ulrich BECK, Risk Society, Towards a New Modernity, London, SAGE, 1992. – La société du risque, Sur la voie d’une autre modernité (1986), p. 60-61, Paris, Flammarion, 2008.

[10] M. CALLON, P. LASCOUMES et Y. BARTHES, op. cit., p. 37.

[11] Carl L. PRITCHARD, Risk Management, Concepts and Guidance, p. 7-8, Arlington VA, ESI, 1997.

[12] Ibidem, p. 39.

[13] John KAY & Mervyn KING, Radical Uncertainty, p. 37, London, The Bridge Press, 2021.

[14] Philippe SILBERZAHN, Bienvenue en incertitude ! Survivre et prospérer dans un monde de surprises, p. 82, Paris, Diateino, 2021.

[15] Daniel KAHNEMAN, Olivier SIBONY, Carl R. SUNSTEIN, Noise, A Flaw in Human Judgment, p. 144-146, New York, Little, Brown, Spark, 2021..

[16] Emergence can be defined as the unexpected appearance or evolution of a variable or system that cannot result from or be explained by the system’s constituents or previous conditions. The microbiologist Janine Guespin sees in this the existence of singular qualities of a system that can only exist under certain conditions: they can possibly be inter-converted while the system retains the same constituents subject to interactions of the same nature, if a parameter regulating the intensity of these interactions crosses a critical threshold during its variation. Janine GUESPIN-MICHEL coord. , Lucien SEVE e.a., Émergence, Complexité et dialectique, Sur les systèmes dynamiques non linéaires, p. 42, Paris, O. Jacob, 2005.

[17] M. CALLON, P. LASCOUMES et Y. BARTHES, Acting in an uncertain world…, p. 40sv.

[18] See: Frédéric MARTINEZ, L’individu face au risque : l’apport de Kahneman et Tversky, dans  Idées économiques et sociales, vol. 161, no. 3, 2010, p. 15-23. https://www.cairn.info/revue-idees-economiques-et-sociales-2010-3-page-15.html

[19] Uncertainty is a fact with which all forms of life must be prepared to contend. At all levels of biological complexity there is uncertainty about the significance of signs or stimuli and about the possible consequences of actions. At all levels, action must be taken before the uncertainty is resolved, and a proper balance must be achieved between a high level of specific readiness for the events that are most likely to occur and a general ability to respond appropriately when the unexpected happens. Daniel KAHNEMAN, Paul SLOVIC & Amos TVERSKY, Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases, p. 509-510, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[20] See: Philippe DESTATTE, We are expected to look far ahead even though the future does not exist, Namur, Wallonia, August 28, 2021. Blog PhD2050, https://phd2050.org/2021/08/28/anticipation-3/

[21] Cyria EMILIANOFF, Risque, in Jacques LEVY et Michel LUSSAULT, Dictionnaire de la Géographie, p. 804-805, Paris, Belin, 2003. The definition of risk in this book is: the probability of a danger threatening or affecting the life and, more generally, the environment of an individual or a group. – See also: Yannick LUNG, Auto-organisation, bifurcation, catastrophe… les ruptures de la dynamique spatiale, Talence, Presses universitaires de Bordeaux, 1987.

[22] Discontinuity refers to rapid and significant shifts in trajectories without the aspect of being mostly unanticipated or deeply surprising. Ozcan SARITAS & Jack SMITH, The Big Picture – trends, drivers, wild cards, discontinuities and weak signals, in Futures, vol. 43, 3, April 2011, p. 292-312.

[23] E.C. ZEEMAN, Catastrophe Theory, Selected Papers, 1972-1977, p. 615-638, Addison Wesley Publishing Co, Reading, Mass. – London – Amsterdam, 1977. – R. THOM, Paraboles et catastrophes, Entretiens sur les mathématiques, la science et la philosophie, p. 59sv, Paris, Flammarion, 1983.

[24] Jérôme DUNLOP, Les 100 mots de la géographie, p. 71-72, Paris, PUF, 2009.

[25] Ph. DESTATTE, We are expected to look far ahead even though the future does not exist…, https://phd2050.org/2021/08/28/anticipation-3/

[26] Clive HAMILTON, The Anthropocene as rupture, in The Anthropocene Review, 3, 2, 2016, p. 93-106.

[27] Virginia GARCIA-ACOSTA, Catastrophes non naturelles et anthropocène, Leçons apprises à partir de perspectives anthropologiques et historiques, dans Rémi BEZAU & Catherine LARRERE dir., Penser l’anthropocène, p. 325sv, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2018.

[28] V. GARCIA-ACOSTA, Catastrophes non naturelles et anthropocène…, p. 33.

[29] V. GARCIA-ACOSTA, Catastrophes non naturelles et anthropocène…, p. 329-330.

[30] And the links between climate and health : Jacques BLAMONT, Introduction au siècle des menaces, p. 505sv, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2004

[31] The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction was established in 1999 to ensure the implementation of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.  https://www.undrr.org/

[32] V. GARCIA-ACOSTA, Prevencion de desastres, estrategias adaptivas y capital social, in Harlan KOFF ed., Social Cohesion bin Europe and the Americas, Power, Time and Space, p. 115-130, Berne, Peter Lang, 2009. – Catastrophes non naturelles et anthropocène…, p. 332.

[33] Edgar MORIN, La Méthode, 1. La nature de la nature, p. 44, Paris, Seuil, 1977. – René THOM, Stabilité culturelle et Morphogénèse, Essai d’une théorie génétique des modèles, Paris, Ediscience, 1972.

[34] An acute and difficult question if ever there was one in the “risk society”. See in particular: Dominique BOURG et Jean-Louis SCHLEGEL, Parer aux risques de demain, le principe de précaution, Paris, Seuil, 2001. – Ulrich BECK, Risk Society, Towards a New Modernity, London, Sage, 1992. – François EWALD, Aux risques d’innover, Les entreprises face au principe de précaution, Paris, Autrement, 2009.

[35] All governments, international bodies, universities and companies should have their own Cassandras, their “National Warning Office”, to identify worst-case scenarios, measure risks and design protection, prevention and mitigation strategies. See: Niall FERGUSON, Doom, The Politics of Catastrophe, New York, Penguin Press, 2021.

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