Ontological Security and Natural Hazards
- Tim HarriesTim HarriesSmall Business Research Centre, Kingston University London
People not only want to be safe from natural hazards; they also want to feel they are safe. Sometimes these two desires pull in different directions, and when they do, this slows the journey to greater physical adaptation and resilience.
All people want to feel safe—especially in their own homes. In fact, although not always a place of actual safety, in many cultures “home” is nonetheless idealized as a place of security and repose. The feeling of having a safe home is one part of what is termed ontological security: freedom from existential doubts and the ability to believe that life will continue in much the same way as it always has, without threat to familiar assumptions about time, space, identity, and well-being. By threatening our homes, floods, earthquakes, and similar events disrupt ontological security: they destroy the possessions that support our sense of who we are; they fracture the social structures that provide us with everyday needs such as friendship, play, and affection; they disrupt the routines that give our lives a sense of predictability; and they challenge the myth of our immortality. Such events, therefore, not only cause physical injury and loss; by damaging ontological security, they also cause emotional distress and jeopardize long-term mental health.
However, ontological security is undermined not only by the occurrence of hazard events but also by their anticipation. This affects people’s willingness to take steps that would reduce hazard vulnerability. Those who are confident that they can eliminate their exposure to a hazard will usually do so. More commonly, however, the available options come with uncertainty and social/psychological risks: often, the available options only reduce vulnerability, and sometimes people doubt the effectiveness of these options or their ability to choose and implement appropriate measures. In these circumstances, the risk to ontological security that is implied by action can have greater influence than the potential benefits. For example, although installing a floodgate might reduce a business’s flood vulnerability, the business owner might feel that its presence would act as an everyday reminder that the business, and the income derived from it, are not secure. Similarly, bolting furniture to the walls of a home might reduce injuries in the next earthquake, but householders might also anticipate that it would remind them that there is a continual threat to their home. Both of these circumstances describe situations in which the anticipation of future feelings can tap into less conscious anxieties about ontological security.
The manner in which people anticipate impacts on ontological security has several implications for preparedness. For example, it suggests that hazard warnings will be counterproductive if they are not accompanied by suggestions of easy, reliable ways of eliminating risk. It also suggests that adaptation measures should be designed not to enhance awareness of the hazard.