GEOL 600 §8: Seminar in Natural Disasters & Global Trade

Tuesdays 1600-1840, Schedule #30903


Welcome to "Natural Disasters and Global Trade". This class is for students in the homeland security masters degree program and for other interested graduate students. This will be a student-centered experience. I will present a basic scheme for our learning. My goal is to facilitate our progress by bringing together experience and ideas so we can develop individually meaningful constructs and an even greater group conscience.


We live in a complex interconnected system, on a very dynamic planet. Natural changes are normal to the earth system. This creates a variety of challenges for us. Sometimes we just try to hang on and wait for a chance to start cleaning up the mess. Other forces will not hit us so suddenly. There are a host of environmental pressures that we will need to deal with as we continue to deplete the planet's resources for survival and for building wealth. There are natural variations in the rate and intensity of earth processes so in order to be resilient we need comprehensive short and long term plans along with adaptive strategies.

Hazards, Disasters and People

A "hazard" poses a threat to life, property, global economics and sustainability. It is the juxtaposition of people and earth processes (hazards) that makes a disaster. Hazards are not necessarily disasters. Disasters can to some degree be avoided and minimized. The more we know about earth science and the natural changes in the system the better we can prepare and thus the less impact a hazard will have. More people in harm's way equates to larger disasters.


One reality of our experience is the increasing global population set to be 7 billion by April 2012. The total number of humans that have ever lived on earth is approximately 110 billion. There is, however, relatively good news about population. Over the last several decades the annual global growth rate has significantly declined for the first time in human history. It peaked at 2.2% in the 1960s but dropped to 1.1% by 2000. That is huge and it offers hope that most of our problems can be solved in the decades to come as the world population is projected to flatten out at about 9.2 billion by 2050. Regional growth rates vary radically around the world and this will present us with significant security challenges as people disseminate. People are still growing in number nonetheless (as are cows) and although a decline in our growth rate is extremely good news our global resource demands are still increasing at unsustainable rates.


How Can People, Nations and Organizations Adapt

What is the connection between earth science and organizational practices? How can changes in the earth system effect global trade and national security? The goal of this class is to develop some basic knowledge of earth process by examining disaster case studies. We will examine societal interactions and through a participants' experience and research try to flush out best practices, ways of thinking, networking, and communicating that will help maximize security and economic stability in the event of a natural disaster or change to the global system. To paraphrase Dr. George Bressler, adjunct SDSU faculty member, educator, and Customs and Border Protection officer, "how can we ensure, or at least maximize economic continuity and flow of goods and services when challenged by unforeseen and/or naturally occurring changes to the system".

Event Prediction and Preparedness

Some types of disasters can be predicted given enough information. The time frames of preparedness and prediction vary. Hurricane prediction like most weather has evolved to give us many days of warning and we need to be prepared for them every year. Mesocyclones and frontal thunderstorms can be generally foreseen, regionally, a day or two in the future, for tornadoes it might be hours or minutes. With earthquakes, even though we know that an occurrence is inevitable, they happen with such violence that we can only be ready to deal with the aftermath. Because it is "buildings that kill people", structural engineering is essential to survival. Volcanoes can be monitored in a different way that usually allows us several weeks or months to prepare for an event, though a large eruption will create a radical departure from normal operations. Pandemic planners must be ready to act in a similar time frame to constrain new and evolving microbes. It is almost impossible to imagine dealing with, or preparing for a massive earth-directed, communication busting coronal mass ejection. It is estimated that if an event were to happen like the one in 1925 or the even more dramatic blast of 1859 it could cost 1-2 trillion dollars and take 10 years to recover. Changes in the natural world are also happening slowly such as climate change, sea level rise, and resource depletion. These types of changes are predicted to impact us decades in the future so theoretically we have plenty of time to prepare. It is said often in disaster briefings "prepare for the worst and hope for the best".

Organizational Resiliency

The effects that various types of disasters will have on global trade and national security are partially predictable, although complex interactions and ancillary consequences continue to take us by surprise. We can use case studies to examine the potential problems. We can brainstorm to prepare for events that have yet to occur. We need to explore how societal differences create challenges, which we have yet to anticipate. With all types of disasters, science and education can help save lives and reduce economic losses. Understanding the natural processes at work will help us to prepare. Still, organizations, which try to plan for these inevitabilities find their planning is often insufficient. Natural disasters in many ways continue to take us by surprise. Being resilient to these deviations takes some expertise of the basic operational processes but it also takes thinking outside the box. It takes an understanding of relationships and connections. It takes interdisciplinary communication. It requires a change in the way we think. We can no longer be assured that data or facts alone tell us the answer. Prescriptive remedies only work with what we know or what we have previously experienced. When we are presented with situations that are unknown it is much more helpful to have a fluid process of thought that enables us to adapt on the fly.

Thank you for joining me in this learning experience. Let's cumulatively try to figure out things that no one has thought about before. It has become apparent that to really solve the problems that lie ahead of us we must all work together.

Course Times and Days

For up-to-date course times and dates please click here to access the SDSU Class Schedule