The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Water, water everywhere

June 27, 2006

I knew that there was a large problem as soon as I pulled my car out of the driveway. There was entirely too much traffic running through my normally quiet suburban neighborhood — we’re kind of buried back in the middle of a tangle of winding streets, so we don’t usually get many people driving through on their way to someplace. But there were a lot of cars out, driving in a slow line that bore all the characteristics of the blind leading the blind: drivers’ heads frantically turning from side to side, trying to figure out where they were supposed to go, and following the car in front of them in the vain hope that perhaps that person knew where they were going. For some reason, traffic was being diverted into the neighborhood, instead of zipping along on the larger roads that border it.

Now, I knew that it had rained pretty hard — I had been out there for quite some time the previous night bailing water out of a window-well after the sump pump shorted out, and the rain was really coming down in buckets and boatloads. After a couple of hours of barely staying ahead of the water level, my wife and I decided to move things out of the basement as quickly as possible and just let the basement flood, since there was no way that I could keep bailing all night long and the window-well was filling up in about five minutes. So we let the flood come, and the next morning I was on my way to the hardware store to buy a new sump pump when i noticed all of the unusual traffic. Maybe the rain had been worse than I thought — maybe roads were closed? I hadn’t checked the local traffic report before I left the house, but a quick phone call later confirmed that the rain had closed many roads. And the situation didn’t show any signs of getting better any time soon.

I navigated the hordes of aimless drivers, and made it to the store just in time to buy the last automatic sump pump on the shelf — and the stand in line with dozens of people buying pumps, wet-dry shop vacuums, and other paraphernalia that screamed “my house is flooded.” Come to find out, much of Coruscant Washington and the surrounding area was flooded by a “rare tropical deluge” that was generating massive havoc.

Talk about a disaster. Talk about a socially constructed disaster.
While endlessly bailing water I was thinking — because, honestly, there’s not much else to think about while trying desperately to keep water out of one’s basement — about the conceptual oddity of calling something, anything, a “natural disaster.” This strikes me as a curious locution indeed, as though “nature” were causally to blame for some set of observed outcomes. And that’s just weird, since “nature” isn’t a conscious being as far as I know, and isn’t really even a discrete entity at all; blaming “nature” is kind of like blaming “reality” or “existence.” Very odd, if you stop to think about it.

To the contrary, I’d say that a situation like the one we’re presently experiencing here in D.C. is socially constructed in at least two and possibly three ways. Blaming “nature,” and thus refusing to place social practices and phenomena squarely at the center of the issue, is just a more or less convenient way out of the problem — an especially convenient one if you happen to be or represent an insurance company (for example). It’s also empirically untenable.

The first and most obvious way that the current flooding in D.C. is socially constructed is causally. By this I do not mean that human beings somehow brought about the rains (although it’s possible that the stalled front and tropical storm activity that are, according to meteorologists, generating the present thunderstorms might be linked to human-induced global climate change . . .). Rather, I mean something simpler: if there were no houses standing where they are standing, if there were no capital city here, then the rainfall wouldn’t be a disaster. What is “disastrous” about these storms is that they are depositing a lot of water in places that are inconvenient for us, and if we were not interacting with the rainfall with our present set of expectations and arrangements then this wouldn’t be a “disaster” at all.

To put this slightly differently: human social practices are an indispensable, and relatively central, part of the complex of factors producing this disaster. In particular, those “infrastructural” practices that encode our expectations about rainfall and water flow are quite complicit in the present situation; if we expected this kind of rain, or if we were prepared to deal with it, the rainfall might not be anything particularly noteworthy. I am initially surprised when 2-3 inches of snowfall closes the city down; where I used to live in new Hampshire, 2-3 inches is a “dusting” and no one even really comments on it. But New Hampshire towns and cities have the proper infrastructure, both in the form of adequate snowplows and sanding truck and in the form of driver training and experience that includes the proper techniques for driving on snow-covered roads, to handle such a snowfall. What is “disastrous” about this rainfall is that no one is prepared for it, and hence the disaster can’t be causally explained without taking into account human social practices. Hence it’s socially constructed. QED.

A second way that this flooding is socially constructed is at the level of meaning. Lots of water in the basement might be a disaster; it might also be an opportunity for some long-overdue cleaning and disposal of various bags and boxes that are now drenched and falling apart. it might be an occasion to curse and complain; it might also be an opportunity to set other work aside and focus on other things for a while. This need not be just an individual-level practice (although the rather Pollyanna-ish narrative that would make lemonade out of the extremely sour lemons involved in a flooded basement is not bloody likely to be widely shared, I don’t think); social groups construct and sustain narratives that imprint meaning on events all the time. Indeed, the classification “disaster” itself is obviously the product of a set of meaning-making practices that lend a particular significance to a series of occurrences, since the act of labeling something a “disaster” is a highly charged political one with financial and legal consequences — and whether something is formally labeled a “disaster” or not has less to do with the events themselves and more with the social procedures through which those events are invested with meaning. Sometimes floods are a disaster; sometimes they aren’t; and what makes the difference isn’t the characteristics of the flood, but the way that we make the flood meaningful. Hence it’s socially constructed. QED.

Now, I think that there’s a third way that the current flooding in D.C. is socially constructed, but I suspect that I am about to lose many of those readers who have agreed with the (pretty banal) argument thus far. [Indeed, I’d be very surprised to find anyone who really didn’t agree with the argument thus far; it seems pretty cut-and-dried to me.] The reason is because I am about to jump right down the slippery slope that Alejandro over at “Reality Conditions” derides as a kind of anti-scientific relativism. But bear with me, because right after that I’m going to argue that this kind of strictly metaphysical dispute makes no difference, at least not in any practical sense.

As far as I am concerned, the current flooding in D.C. is socially constructed metaphysically. By this I meant that the fact that we refer to these events in this way, and that we experience them in the way that we experience them, is wholly contingent — and contingent not on some kind of dispositional essence of dihydrogen monoxide (that is to say, water), but contingent on the various social resources that we use in making the world that we inhabit. This goes beyond the causal kind of social construction, and beyond the meaning kind of social construction; I am instead claiming that there is no essence to the current flooding beyond our construction of the event. It could be a different event (not just the same event with a different meaning) if we were different and if we had different cultural resources to deploy. The social fact that it is a”flooding” and not something else tells us, in the end, a lot about ourselves and nothing whatsoever about “the essence of the world as it really is in itself.” There’s no outside to get to, no place from which to view the world that isn’t already implicated in a process of constructing it, and hence nothing like a final account of the world that would somehow really, really, capture its fundamental ontological character.

Now, you will notice (you sharp-eyed reader you) that I did not end that paragraph with a “QED.” That’s because the sentiment that I expressed there is a strictly metaphysical claim: it is not amenable, even in principle, to empirical verification or falsification. There’s no way to “prove” or “disprove” it, any more than there is a way to prove or disprove a claim like “there is flooding because God willed it to be so” or “there is flooding because of a series of unlikely natural occurrences, occurrences that would have unfolded in precisely the same way even if there were no humans around to notice them.” None of these can be proved or disproved, because they aren’t statements about things in the world. They are instead statements about the value or status of our claims about the world as a whole, and therefore (and pretty much by definition) can’t be empirically verified or falsified. They are, rather, “world-disclosing,” inasmuch as the world governed by the principle that things happen because they are God’s will is a very different world than the world governed by the principle of natural occurrences with defined probabilities within a certain range of error. And when I say that the world is different, I mean that the world as a whole is different, not that anything in particular within that world is different; whether God willed it or events happen because of concatenations of cultural resources, there’s still water in my basement.

I’ll go further: strictly metaphysical claims, which is the terrain on which the most intense battles about “relativism” and “truth” seem to be fought, do not matter to the analysis of empirical events, although they do matter intensely to the practical-moral procedures that we have for dealing with them. There’s no defensible answer to strictly metaphysical claims, which is why a responsible science (social or otherwise) should steer clear of them.

To see that metaphysical claims are irrelevant, consider the following three conversations:

Q: why are there floods in D.C. at the moment?
A: God willed it.
Q: okay, sure He/She did, but how was God’s will exercised?
A: well, there was this stalled front, and tropical moisture . . .

Q: why are there floods in D.C. at the moment?
A: the inherent properties of water came together with a combination of factors involving temperature and pressure.
Q: okay, but what combination?
A: well, there was this stalled front, and tropical moisture . . .

Q: why are there floods in D.C. at the moment?
A: because of the way that we experience events in our contemporary society.
Q: okay, and how do we experience these events?
A: well, there was this stalled front, and tropical moisture . . .

Once we get off of the insoluble “how many angels dance on the head of a pin” territory and return to something empirical, the dispute vanishes and we all end up talking about the same things. Of course, a scientific realist will interpret this as evidence that the really real dispositional character of the world is inducing us to talk about the same things in the same ways, while I interpret it as further testimony to the power of cultural resources . . . but that’s back into metaphysical territory again. And science can’t tell us anything about metaphysics, so let’s not pretend that it can.

Now, the fact that metaphysical speculations are insoluble and irrelevant analytically doesn’t mean that they aren’t important practically. Holding that events happen because of God’s will leads us to invest events with a particular kind of meaning, while holding that they happen because of combinations of natural occurrences leads to different sets of meanings (with different legal and financial consequences). And considering “nature” as a set of inert resources that we can exploit as we wish leads to things like the Grand Coulee Dam, while considering the planet as something that we are enjoined to cultivate under the eye of a watchful Creator might generate different courses of action — courses of action that might well have different causal consequences. So the metaphysical disputes that I have argued are irrelevant to a scientific analysis turn out to be vital to the other two varieties of social construction — even though, and perhaps precisely because, there is no way to definitively settle them.

In any event, I find all of this argumentation infinitely more satisfying than continuing to clean up my flooded basement.

[cross-posted at ProfPTJ’s Course Diaries]
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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.