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Surprise ecologies: case studies on temporal vulnerability in four North American floodplains

Daniel H. de Vries, University of Amsterdam, Department of Anthropology


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When hazards, such as floods, are collectively experienced as “surprising”, this heightens the shock experience and likelihood of disaster, and exacerbates its impact. I outline how such collective surprises can be seen as the outcome of a dynamic condition of vulnerability that revolves around how humans construct expectations about future risks. This “temporal vulnerability” is determined largely by the experience of dynamic processes through time, or temporality. This paper is based on ethnohistorical data collection in four U.S. floodplains (California, Louisiana, North Carolina, Georgia) from 2000 through 2005. It shows how surprise conditions can be studied by focusing on temporal referentiality, or how successfully evaluators bring lived experience and historical data into the present. Results showed that temporal vulnerability increases as a result of the “narrowing” of relatively predictable surprise conditions in three interactive, dynamic systems: human meaning making, landscape change, and stochastic timing of hazard events. Conditions of surprise are classified by lack of temporal references (ignorance), erosion of temporal referencing practices (naivety), and misguided temporal referencing (denial). The concept of temporal resilience is outlined and illustrated.

Key words

expectations; flooding; memory; referentiality; resilience; surprise; temporality; vulnerability

Copyright © 2019 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087