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The Value of Life and Disaster Risk Reduction

Myra Farooqi14 May 2021

Humanity proves time and again that one life is not always equal to another, ultimately devaluing us all.

 

1 – 1 = -2. Basic arithmetic would explain why this answer is incorrect, but the valuation of life is far from basic.

There have been many attempts at discovering the value of life, ranging from the economical for use in labor practices to the metaphysical to the biomedical to the religious. On an individual level, humans search for the answer as well — consciously or not.

Every day, we make choices that place value on the lives of ourselves and others, and this is at the core of every aspect of disaster risk reduction (DRR). Who we define as vulnerable, who we choose to abandon, and what we choose to protect are all questions of value, and that value has consequences as illustrated by the fact that “children from the poorest households die at twice the rate of their better-off peers” (UNICEF).

In her recent book, The Sum of Us, author and economist Heather McGhee argues that we have been taught that our value stems from the devaluation of others, and this belief “distorts our politics, drains our economy, and erodes everything…from our schools to our air to our infrastructure” (p.xxiii). McGhee specifically discusses the American experience, but this valuation process is applicable to almost every interaction in power dynamics.

For example, why do we use drone warfare? It allows us to protect our own people while fighting others. Why do we restrict access to elections? It allows us to protect our power from waning. Why do we engage in factory farming? It allows us to feed ourselves more easily.

These are simplifications of complex issues, but they do reflect our values in practice. Time after time, conflict after conflict, day after day, we (those with power) decide whose life is more important, and act accordingly. Unless we work to combat this inequality, incorporating DRR principles may never reduce our disasters of choice. At the end of the day, the unequal valuation of life will leave us all at a loss.

1 – 1 will equal -2.

 

Myra Farooqi is an MSc student at the IRDR, and can be contacted at myra.farooqi.20@ucl.ac.uk