Tag Archives: Hurricane Sandy

Rule by Nudge: Geographies of Libertarian Paternalism

By Martin Mahony

Much of the debate in the recent US election – when it hasn’t been explicitly focused on GDP and unemployment numbers – has concerned the role of the federal government in the lives of individual citizens. The debate is often cast in terms of ‘big government versus small government’, and the tensions within and between these positions were brought to light in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was forced to retreat from previous comments he had made about reducing the role of the federal government in disaster relief, as plaudits rolled in for the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the hours and days following Hurricane Sandy’s landfall on the East Coast.

In the UK, conservative politicians are more likely to acknowledge the moral and social worth of a centrally-administered welfare system than their US counterparts. However, the debate becomes much more complex when it moves away from questions of taxation and finance and into the everyday realm of people’s behaviour and exercise of choice. Traditionally, conservative thinkers have seen the free-market as the best framework within which citizens can make decisions which add-up to a desirable and democratically legitimate outcome.

However, in light of realizations that human beings aren’t the ‘rational economic actors’ assumed by economic models, a new way of thinking has emerged. ‘Libertarian paternalism’ has come to occupy a central place in the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s thinking. In a new commentary piece in The Geographical Journal, Mark Whitehead and colleagues argue that David Cameron’s embracing of this philosophy (popularized by Thaler and Sunstein in their book Nudge) is as significant as Margaret Thatcher’s embracing of the free-market neoliberalism of Hayek.

In a blog post on the BBC website, documentary-maker Adam Curtis paints a picture of how behavioural psychology and behavioural economics have come together with emerging cognitive sciences of decision-making to constitute a new tool by which the (British) state seeks to govern its citizens. The idea of ‘nudging’ is that desirable behaviours can be promoted by subtly changing the ‘choice architecture’ within which people make decisions. For example, placing fruit in prominent positions in school canteens is thought to increase fruit consumption, but in a way which doesn’t force anyone to eat the fruit – the power to choose is, ostensibly, still in the hands of the child.

Whitehead et al.’s paper suggests that this philosophy is having a profound effect on the relationship between UK citizens and the state. It is also altering the spatial environments in which we live through the incorporation of ‘nudging’ into everything from urban planning policies to kitchen design. In the past, geographers have made profound contributions to the study of the ethical and political consequences of neoliberal thought. The ascent of libertarian paternalism now offers new challenges and opportunities for geographers as the spatial relationships between the rulers and the ruled are transformed by the rise of the nudge.

 Mitt Romney disaster relief position faces scrutinyThe Huffington Post, 31st October 2012

 From pigeon to Superman and back againBBC – Adam Curtis Blog, 21st October 2012

Mark Whitehead et al., 2012, Geography, libertarian paternalism and neuro-politics in the UK, The Geographical Journal 178 302-307

Hurricane Documentation

by Benjamin Sacks

As Hurricane Sandy hits the densely populated US eastern seaboard, commentators and pundits alike compete to depict local reactions and identify those populations who will be hardest hit. Much of the current concern stems from officials’ highly criticised response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (2005), which devastated New Orleans and left at least 1,200 people dead. But, collection and analysis of valuable data on constituency responses, first-aid services, and suggestions for future defences against hurricanes has its own history. Sociologists, political scientists, and geographers have experimented with various field research methods.

In 1855, Andrés Poey, of Havana, organised a list of some 400 hurricanes documented in various forms since Christopher Columbus’s 1492 trans-Atlantic expedition. He hoped, by publishing his tables in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, to advance awareness on hurricane theory: for it had ‘now been proved…that wind, in hurricanes and common gales on both sides of the equator, has two motions; and that it turns or blows round a focus or centre in a more or less circular form’ (p. 291).

Nearly 150 years later, using techniques they had earlier tested in nuclear power accidents, in 1996 Donald J Seigler (Old Dominion University), Stanley D Brunn (University of Kentucky), and James H Johnson, Jr (University of North Carolina) documented their use of small focus groups to learn about hurricane responses and better react to future storms. In December 1992, six months after Hurricane Andrew slammed into Florida, the three researchers conducted several focus groups in the Miami area. They believed that their experiment was one of the first implementations of focus groups in post-hurricane emergency planning. Questions were organised around: ‘the pre-impact period’, or preparations for the hurricane; and ‘post-impact period’, or the storm’s psychological, physical, and social consequences. Seigler, Brunn, and Johnson delineated between ‘therapeutic’ and ‘parasitic’/‘exploitative’ responses – unified, communal support versus an “everyone for themselves” mentality (p. 127). The researchers concluded that focused, group discussion in post-disaster scenarios could provide information crucial to more rapid, comprehensive first aid.

 For an official U.S. estimate of casualties from Hurricane Katrina (2005), see here (p. 5).

 Donald J Seigler, Stanley D Brunn, and James H Johnson, Focusing on Hurricane Andrew through the Eyes of the Victims, Area 28 124-29.

 Andrés Puey, A Chronological Table, Comprising 400 Cyclonic Hurricanes Which Have Occurred in the West Indies and the North Atlantic within 362 Years, from 1493-1855: With a Biographical List of 450 Authors, Books, &c., and Periodicals, Where Some Interesting Accounts May be Found, Especially on the West and East Indian Hurricanes [sic], Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 25 291-328.