Jeff Schlegelmilch


On his book Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters

Cover Interview of July 22, 2020

The wide angle

When I first endeavored to write this book, I was thinking about what I would tell an elected official who asked what they needed to know about disasters. Or if a professor was teaching a course in sustainable development or public policy, and wanted to do a unit on disasters, what kind of primer would provide the necessary information without getting too technical, or too lengthy, but also not be over-simplified.

The main objective of the book is to bring together expertise from different fields and different scholars to provide a holistic understanding of disasters, and then to work towards more dynamic solutions that embrace uncertainty and complexity. Some of the proposed approaches are drawn from the private sector and the business world, others from the military. So while our disasters are driven by an increasingly complicated world, our solutions can build on this by drawing together expertise from a multitude of scientific fields, other sectors of society, and communities by engaging in more meaningful ways to build resilience that is a fair match to the challenges we face.

When we focus on economic policy, the way we do business can increase the threat of climate change and build our infrastructure in vulnerable areas, or it can nudge growth to be more resilient and less toxic to the environment. When social policy increases distrust in government, it impacts our ability to effectively communicate protective actions to the public. But when it engages communities, it creates new channels for communication. When we build emergency management systems focused on consequence management, we miss opportunities to build resilience in policies that set the stage for disasters long before they ever occur. When we focus on the whole community, new resources and partnerships become available. And without proper research into these complexities, we end up with partial evidence, then fill in the gaps with what sounds right rather than what has been discovered to be effective. Whereas with evidence, we can replicate successes and avoid repeating mistakes in our efforts.

This theme of complexity and collaboration extends to the development of this book. Nothing in this book is solely my expertise. This book itself was a shared idea that originated with my friend, colleague and mentor, Dr. Irwin Redlener. Each chapter is made stronger by the commentary from other experts in the field lending their time and expertise to the narrative of the book, as well as some brilliant students and other close colleagues who provided inputs into the early versions of the manuscript. And with nearly 300 citations, as well as the input from peer reviewers and editors, the intellectual wells that I drew from are as broad and as deep as the topics discussed. This is all to say that I am incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by so many smart, dedicated and generous people, and that no understanding of disasters is possible through a single lens or by a single person.