CORDIS - EU research results

Coordinating for life. Success and failure of Western European societies in coping with rural hazards and disasters, 1300-1800

Final Report Summary - COORDINATINGFORLIFE (Coordinating for life. Success and failure of Western European societies in coping with rural hazards and disasters, 1300-1800)

Societies in past and present are regularly confronted with major hazards, which sometimes have disastrous effects. Some societies are successful in preventing these effects and buffering threats, or they recover quickly, while others prove highly vulnerable. It was the key objective of this project to better understand why this is the case, using the experiences of pre-industrial Western-Europe as a “laboratory”, allowing for comparative analysis.

First, the project’s results have shown that disasters are not merely natural events, and also that wealth and technology alone are not adequate to prevent them. Rather, disasters are social occurrences, and they form an indication of the organizational capacities of a society, both in prevention, mitigation and recovery. Similar natural hazards and extreme events could and did have a different impact, because of differing socioeconomic or political constellations, as we show by way of comparative analysis. While storminess and gusts of wind spurred disastrous sand drifts in seventeenth century Norfolk, similar geomorphological regions in the Low Countries were not fundamentally affected because of efficient prevention measures taken by effective village communities. The same divergence holds for the effects after a disaster had happened. In several test areas, for instance, areas affected by repeated flooding witnessed impoverishment of large parts of the population, as in coastal Flanders, while in other regions of the North Sea area this effect was avoided.

To establish why some hazards become disasters, and how disasters can have differing long term effects, the project goes beyond crude indicators of aggregate social and economic entities. Instead, specific research questions are studied by way of micro level data. For instance, to understand why and how plague-induced mortality differs, actual mortality data is reconstructed and, combined with social-economic characteristics of the deceased, used to analyse how mortality differs within and between small communities. Next, social-economic characteristics of the communities are compared, in order to understand patterns and differences between groups of communities or even regions, but based on the underlying micro level data.

In explaining differences in coping capacity, this project specifically targets the way societies have organized the exchange, allocation and use of resources. Here again, the question is approached by studying decisions at the micro level, for instance by way of analysing lease contracts to unravel the allocation of production factors. One of the main underlying key variables underlying the degree of success of societies in preventing or remedying disasters through these institutional arrangements, we hypothesize, is the degree of economic equity in that society. The recent literature on disasters suggests this factor as possible cause of success or failure of institutional arrangements in their confrontation with hazards, but its discussion remains descriptive. Our more precise and analytical approach shows that rising inequality in itself does not necessarily lead to higher social vulnerability, but rather the presence of strong middle groups was vital. This was especially through the organizations at the meso level of society, including village communities, water management organizations, charitable funds and commons, whose functioning and success in responding to risk, preventing disasters and recuperating after a shock was dependent on these middle groups.

The approach taken here contrasts with most recent research on vulnerability and resilience. Much of this literature is too focused on the effects on complex and aggregate entities like ‘the market’ or ‘the society’, and less so on people. However, we can wonder whether systemic vulnerability should really be the central issue in such research. Overall, economic systems in pre-industrial Europe might have been quite resilient when confronted with natural hazards - the Black Death possibly being the exception which proves the rule. Notwithstanding this overall systemic resilience, we find a lot of instances in European history in which specific groups of people proved very vulnerable to hazards, and saw their lives threatened or their livelihoods fatally disturbed, while others managed to escape the ‘storm’. Our analysis of natural hazards in pre-industrial society is mostly about explaining why people - rather than systems – were put at risk, and how societies differed in the amount and the type of people put at risk as well as in the level of exposure to hazards. Next, we want to know, of course, whether changes within systems could lead to changes in the functioning of such systems in the long term. Thus, by combining micro data on decisions and actions of with insights into the functioning of societal organizations at the meso level we come closer in understanding outcomes for society as a whole, that is, at the macro level. Thus we are better able to understand the differences in vulnerability between societies and between social groups within these societies.