This paper sets out to explore the different ways in which communities deal with earthquakes. As is well known, the ability to recover from a damaging earthquake varies greatly across the world. The events of 2010 were of course a striking reminder of this, when the death toll from the Haïti earthquake was at least 100,000; in the very different conditions of Chile, a much larger event the same year killed just 525 people. In a narrow sense, much of the difference can be explained in terms of the engineering properties of the physical infrastructure affected; the better it has been designed and constructed to withstand strong ground shaking, the greater the chance that the community affected has of recovering quickly. However, the central thesis of this paper is that the ability of a community to deal with earthquakes involves much more than just technical factors. Seismically resilient buildings and other infrastructure will only be in place when an earthquake strikes if there has been a willingness and ability to devote the necessary resources to building them. Moreover, taking prior steps to limit physical damage is only one part of the process for dealing with earthquakes; providing for immediate post-earthquake needs and for the longer term rebuilding of communities is also important. To pursue these issues further, and how they might affect engineers, I visited four widely differing regions of high seismicity. During this study tour, I examined the societal context in which seismic engineers operate and talked to many people involved in earthquake protection and response. The intention was to identify the ways in which the ability of communities to deal with earthquakes depend on societal factors such as economics, politics and more general cultural dimensions. Based on these investigations, I believe that seismic engineers can contribute more effectively to ensuring successful outcomes after an earthquake strikes if fully aware of these societal factors. We need to look beyond our narrow technical field of providing earthquake resistant facilities and widen our vision to consider the complex systems, both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, in which those facilities will operate. E. F. Schumacher’s famous book (Schumacher 1973) ‘Small is beautiful’ has the subtitle ‘the study of economics as if people mattered’. I believe that seismic engineering should be practised ‘as if people mattered’.
Seismic engineering as if people mattered
The ideas behind this paper first started to form when I was preparing the third edition of a basic textbook on earthquake engineering. My book (Booth 2014) was intended to set out the broad technical principles that a seismic engineer needed to be familiar with in order to be a successful designer of earthquake resistant building structures. The treatment was necessarily partial and personal, and inevitably contained at least some errors and important omissions. But even if that had not been the case, I realized that the tools of the trade of the earthquake engineer that the book tried to describe could never by themselves solve the problem of ‘dealing with earthquakes’. The elegant and innovative solutions that the engineer devised might not be successfully implemented by the contractor, or they might not address the real performance concerns of their intended occupiers, or they might be unaffordable, or they might fail to address issues that had nothing to do with earthquakes, such as practicality for daily living or architectural delight or coping with other environmental influences such as wind, flood, temperature. It was a big subject involving a wide range of actors outside the structural engineering profession of my intended readers, but I wanted to help them widen their vision to encompass issues beyond their field. I was fortunate in having an editor who allowed me the time to write a new first chapter ‘The nature of earthquake risk’ which started the discussion of these issues. I was even luckier to be asked to present this Mallet-Milne lecture and to develop the ideas still further. Thus was born the idea for a longer treatment of ‘seismic engineering as if people mattered’, a sub-title poached from that of E. F. Schumacher’s classic book on economics, ‘Small is beautiful’ (Schumacher 1973).
‘Earthquakes are different’
Earthquakes are different from many of the other conditions that structural engineers encounter. There are technical issues to consider; unlike hurricanes, earthquakes shake both inside and outside of the building, affecting structure and services alike. They often trigger equally alarming and damaging events: landslides, fires, tsunamis. But I believe that there are two more fundamental issues that pose particular challenges for engineers in their dealings with the wider world. Firstly, return periods of events that cause significant damage to a region are usually long, sometimes extending to many generations. Coupled with this, earthquakes are much more ‘unpredictable’ than other environmental loads; it is possible to warn with confidence that a particular region is prone to strong earthquakes, but to predict when they will occur is currently impossible, and maybe always will be. Forecasts a few days into the future can be made for weather systems anywhere in the world, which are reliable enough to form the basis of effective action to protect society against wind storms, flooding and other hazardous weather conditions (Silver 2012). Volcanology has also advanced to a point where advance warning of eruptions is usually possible (McNutt 1996). The best that is currently available for the seismic hazard is to warn potentially affected regions at most a few tens of seconds before they are struck, and always after the causative fault has broken (Johnson et al. 2016).
It is true that in the last 40 years, enormous strides have been made at a technical level to deal with both these issues—that is, the long return periods and the unpredictability. However, the general public will probably find it very hard to understand the technical language that seismic engineers use to talk about these matters. And there is a problem of communication in the other direction, too; we engineers might find it difficult to understand the ways in which people living in earthquake country view the threat. For one thing, they may not give high priority to preparing for an event which might never affect them or their children. So there are real issues of communication here.
One reaction of seismic engineers to all of this is to stick with the complex technical matters of our subject, which we are good at, and let others worry about the wider issues, which we may not understand. Taking this stance, we allow others to set the standards and objectives to which we work. I think under many circumstances this stance is valid and often inevitable; it is probably one that I have unconsciously taken in most of my work as an earthquake engineer. But as a profession, we cannot then make the often-heard complaint that we are not given the status we are due, because we are effectively the servants of others higher up in the decision-making chain. And perhaps even more importantly, I believe that earthquake engineers have a unique contribution to make to the problem of ‘dealing with earthquakes’; we certainly do not have all the answers (another fundamental assumption of this paper which I hope to justify in later sections), but we do have some crucial contributions. Examining the wider issues affecting the seismic resilience of societies and the implications that these issues have on our effectiveness as seismic engineers forms the main body of this paper. The intention is that an examination of the issues may enable us to be more effective—and influential—in driving the agenda of protecting society against the earthquake threat.
What earthquakes share with other natural hazards
Earthquakes certainly have their own very distinctive features, which have a profound influence on the best ways of dealing with them. However, they also share common features with other natural hazards, particularly rapid onset ones like windstorms, floods or volcanoes. One of these common features is that the resources that are devoted to recovering from a large-scale natural disaster often greatly exceed the mitigation efforts that preceded the disaster; this particularly applies in developing countries (Clarke and Dercon 2016). Another is that the response during the first few days after the disaster is often chaotic. There is the general issue of whether response should be ‘top down’ or ‘bottom up’, a topic which appears throughout this paper. Is a rapid, well controlled response from government preferable to a slower, possibly technically inferior, response controlled or at least influenced by local communities, which may be slow but better suited to local needs? Also, many countries are subject to extreme natural hazards of more than one kind, and the technical solutions that are good for one kind of hazard may not suit another; for example, heavy roofs are good for hurricanes but potentially lethal in earthquakes. This raises the point that seismic engineers need to be in dialogue with wind and other types of hazard engineers. Perhaps because earthquakes are so distinct, our seismic community sometimes neglects to do this.
Finally, the ability of a local community to prepare for, and respond to, natural hazards is crucial to the way they deal with all of them; it is not just for earthquakes that people matter.
The investigations carried out
The general public in the UK is usually very interested in earthquakes (and volcanoes, which they often conflate with earthquakes) but generally they are not seriously concerned about the seismic threat to the UK. This is entirely rational; Roger Musson, a previous Mallet-Milne lecturer, estimates that in the last 400 years, earthquakes in the UK have killed only around 10–12 people (Musson 2003). The amount of damage that earthquakes have caused in the UK is trivial compared with that due to floods and windstorms, let alone that caused by human activities associated with, for example, transportation or war (Arup 1993). So to investigate further how society deals with earthquakes, I wanted to travel beyond the UK to places where they were of real concern, and I was very fortunate in obtaining generous travel grants from the Institution of Civil Engineers’ Research and Innovation fund, Society for Earthquake and Civil Engineering Dynamics (SECED) and Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team (EEFIT) to visit the four regions discussed in Sect. 2. The methodology employed was rather unsystematic; I used my contacts in the four regions visited to gain interviews with professionals involved in seismic protection and response; most, but by no means all, were engineers. Altogether, 48 people were interviewed (“Appendix 1”). The interviews concentrated on the interviewees’ personal experience of responding to earthquake issues, but were otherwise unstructured. In addition, 19 people with a professional interest in dealing with earthquakes were interviewed, either in person or by email (“Appendix 2”). Twelve were based in the UK, two in Germany and one each in California, Chile, Italy, Japan and Turkey. Confidential notes of all the interviews have been retained.
I make no apology for the unsystematic nature of these procedures, which would no doubt horrify most professional researchers in the fields of both engineering and the social sciences. The views expressed are necessarily very personal ones, and the haphazard procedures in some ways accord with the essential ‘messiness’ of my subject, discussed later.
Layout of the paper
Table 1 gives a contents list of the paper. Section 2 describes the study tour I undertook for this paper, and presents brief snapshots of what I discovered about how wider societal issues influence earthquake engineering in the four countries I visited. Section 3 looks at the training and professional organisation of engineers; it examines our status in society and our ability to communicate with people outside our profession, again in the context of our contribution to promoting seismic resilience. Section 4 examines the potential of the technical fixes we design as engineers to help society deal with earthquakes, as well as their limitations. I discuss the extent to which technical fixes need to be adapted for the characteristics of the societies they are intended for, and I conclude this section with some thoughts about how our engineering mindset affects our success as seismic engineering designers. Section 5 discusses seismic engineering standards. Section 6 moves away from engineering issues to look at the role of earthquake insurance in helping societies deal with earthquakes. Section 7 moves even further from seismic engineering to discuss social, political, economic and cultural influences on seismic resilience. Once again inspired by Schumacher’s ‘Small is beautiful’, in Sect. 8 I ask the strange question: “Could there be such thing as Buddhist seismic engineering, and if so what would it look like?” I conclude by reflecting on the true nature of engineers and how it influences our contribution to ‘dealing with earthquakes’.