This is an edited, pre-print excerpt of Ann Brower’s paper, which is set to be published in the US-based earthquake engineering journal, Earthquake Spectra. The final published paper will be available online from November at www.earthquakespectra.org.
At 12:51 on 22 February 2011, 12 people died beside me. The parapet and facade of an unreinforced masonry building on the main street of Christchurch, New Zealand, crushed the bus that I was riding. I’m the only one left, the lucky 13th. My leg, my hand, and my soul will never be the same. I broke more bones than the surgeons were willing to count, spent two months in hospital, and most of a year off work. I walked, slept, and dreamed in a fog for four years. It cost half a million dollars to save my left leg. I treasure that leg, scars and all, but still feel the earthquake in every step.
In this article, I share my story – from the earthquake, to the Bright Light, to the Dark Place, to the hospital, to the Dalai Lama, to the halls of Parliament. I also share the story of a nation coming to grips with its home on the Ring of Fire. The story ends on 8 May 2016, when Parliament passed the new Building Act, complete with a ministerially-titled “Brower Amendment” that halved the remediation time for unreinforced masonry parapets and other falling hazards. I conclude with the lessons I’ve learned on making a difference.
It’s not normal to feel your pelvis break. It’s less normal to feel brick after brick land on your left hip, and wonder how long you’ll last. It’s most unusual to be dug out from under a collapsed building by strangers, and taken to hospital in the back of another stranger’s truck. It’s decidedly abnormal to plead with those strangers who are risking their lives to save yours to get the others first, only to find out that there are no others. It’s extraordinary to discover you’re the only one left.
Such an experience tends to be life-changing. It changed me from an economically-oriented political scientist focused on land and the environment into a reluctant activist for science-informed law reform of unreinforced masonry buildings in New Zealand. Before the earthquakes, as a Fulbright scholar with a newly-minted Berkeley PhD, I had accidentally instigated a science-informed national land law reform in New Zealand (Brower 2008). So I had a few tricks up my sleeve, ready for action on building safety. I was also not alone. Engineers, geologists, and others renewed and amplified calls to acknowledge the island nation’s home on the Ring of Fire. In this article I share our story – from earthquake to Building Act – and conclude with some lessons from Christchurch on making a difference.
In the Dark Place, I feel the involuntary death throes of a 14 year old boy, a 78 year old woman, and 10 others in between. My leg, my hand, and my soul will never be the same.
The story begins while reading The Economist on a bus on the main street of Christchurch, New Zealand. Before the quakes, Colombo Street looked like any other main street in NZ. It was full of precariously perched parapets, loosely tied awnings, and blissfully unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings, of which there are thousands across New Zealand (Russell and Ingham 2010; GNS Science 2014), Oregon (Paxton et al 2015), Washington state (Gilbert 2016), British Columbia (Paxton et al 2017), and even California (Paxton et al 2015), and beyond. URM buildings did not fare well in Christchurch (Moon et al. 2014). Those of us next to these buildings fared even worse (Giaretton et al 2016).
Sixteen people died and one person was paralysed on one block of Colombo Street, the main street of Christchurch. Twelve people died on or beside a red bus travelling from my seaside village of Sumner (Figures 1, 2). I was the lucky one. It only took me 2 months to get home, and another 18 months to get back to running, jumping, and playing the fiddle. The earthquake is an indelible part of my left leg, and of my life story.
Part 1: From the earthquake to the Dark Place
The bus stops, jumps in an aftershock. I look up from The Economist. Never having been in the city centre for a shake, I think “Cool! This time I want to watch.”
I look out the window, see bricks fall. This is definitively no longer cool.
I see buildings all along the other side of the street crumble. I hear buildings on our side explode into the street, ejecting bits onto the footpath, into the street, and onto our bus. Bricks hit bus. One by one, by 10, by 50, by 100. They stop.
The dark shadows in his bright blue eyes told me in no uncertain terms that I mustn’t look around me. So I didn’t. I looked only at Rob, who had somehow crawled into my small pocket of crushed-ness.
They start again. No. Not bricks, chunks. Windows. Bus seats.
The sounds stop. I don’t hear chunks, I feel them. On my left hip. Chunks don’t clatter or clunk. They push. They press. They crush. The bus roof and my left hip fuse, become one.
Pelvis breaks. More than once. All sounds, all scents, all colours fuse.
Pain. Lights. Flashes.
Bright Light. I float. I watch.
No. This is not my life. This is not me. This is not an acceptable situation. I am not OK with this. This is not my story. No.
Bright Light fades. Dark Place arrives.
Part 2: From Dark Place to first surgery
In the Dark Place, I feel the involuntary death throes of a 14 year old boy, a 78 year old woman, and 10 others in between. My leg, my hand, and my soul will never be the same.
When I enter the Dark Place, I do what any rational person would do. I scream at the top of my lungs. A sizeable gang of kind souls have already started clearing the rubble off the collapsed roof of the bus. When I scream, they stop.
They already knew I was alive, but the scream confirms it in spades. It also attracts Rick and Paddy, an ex-cop and a tunnellist, to the rescue effort. Rick heard it from 2 blocks away.
The gang quickly sends down an emissary to ever so politely ask me to please shut up. That’s when Mike appears outside my window. He repeats over and over “we’re going to get you out. We’re going to get you out.” And they did.
When they took me off oxygen, she explained “They have to ration the oxygen for the second wave of survivors.”
None of my rescuers was a professional first-responder. But they did an extraordinary thing that day. Doug and the gang dug a meter of bricks and concrete off the collapsed roof of the bus and ripped the roof off with their bare hands. Rick and Paddy crawled into the bus, and freed my left leg from the bus seat that was crushing it. They lifted me through a broken window. Scotty held my hand as I lay in the middle of Colombo Street. Josie splinted my left leg. Garry flagged down a truck, convinced the driver to take us to hospital, parted the already gridlocked traffic, told me jokes and stories, and delivered me to hospital. Garry stayed with me in the Emergency Department for hours, through aftershocks, sirens, power outages, and the reassuring calm of the doctors and nurses. I nearly broke his hand when they reset my leg. When the hospital kicked Garry out, he gave careful hand-holding instructions to a medical student, Adele, who stayed as I floated into and out of shock. When they took me off oxygen, she explained “They have to ration the oxygen for the second wave of survivors.” She took me up on the bet that my leg wasn’t broken. I lost. When surgeons took me away, she went home to check on her flatmates.
The rest of Christchurch had to wait for Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) to mobilize from all round the world. I had my very own Ann Search and Rescue, or ASAR for short. During two months in hospital, nearly every member of ASAR came to visit. For some it was as much for them as for me – in the hopes of easing the night sweats and incessant replays. Two sent their mums to visit, with brownies. In August 2011, I hired a band and a pub, and threw a Rescue Party to celebrate the kindness of friend and stranger. Despite the cold winter rain and All Blacks-Wallabies match on that night, a festive crowd including many of my rescuers, nurses, and physios turned up. A good time was had by all.
And we mustn’t forget Rob. As the others were clearing the rubble, he crawled into the bus and took it upon himself to hold my hand. The dark shadows in his bright blue eyes told me in no uncertain terms that I mustn’t look around me. So I didn’t. I looked only at Rob, who had somehow crawled into my small pocket of crushed-ness.
Rob quickly ascertained that I was a keen tramper, and a general lover of the outdoors. So he told me his favorite fishing stories while we waited to be dug out. When Rob grabbed my hand, I went from being crushed, trapped and alone, to just being crushed and trapped.
It’s an incredible gift they gave. When I think back to the earthquake, I do not see the horrors of Colombo Street. All I see is my rescuers. And I smile. It’s a wet and salty smile, but a smile all the same.
Part 3: The Dalai Lama
Less than a week after getting off crutches in June 2011, I received a text message from the hospital. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was requesting the honor of my company in Ward 20 of Christchurch Hospital at 2pm that afternoon. I skipped physio that day.
The Dalai Lama’s visit helped me and five other seriously injured survivors start to make peace with the pain. Three were in wheelchairs, one was still on bedrest. His Holiness told us to let go of the shoulda-woulda-couldas that haunt survivors. The point isn’t that we could’ve died; it’s that we didn’t.
Strongly and gently, the Dalai Lama empowered us to give something to the world. We all had something, he assured us, but we needed to traverse the pain and anger. If we allowed the pain to become part of us, the anger would subside. That would leave room to each give our something to the world.
Part 4: Royal Commission Inquiries
Also in 2011, the government commissioned a Royal Commission of Inquiry into building performance in the Canterbury earthquakes (CERC 2011). I was invited, but not required to testify. In preparing to testify, it became clear to me that the thirteen of us who were crushed suffered not from a sin of commission, but from manifold sins of omission. In reading the evidence about the building that collapsed onto our bus, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that Parliament, the building owners, and the City Council had, each in their own way, left us there to die.
The six-inch pile of evidence compiled by the Royal Commission made it searingly obvious that there was nothing natural about the disaster that befell the thirteen of us. It wasn’t the earthquake. It was the building, decisions made about the building, and the failure to enforce those decisions. This building, and hundreds like it, had been deemed “earthquake prone” for 30 years.
At the time, the newspapers were saying we should label unsafe buildings, to let the market squeeze them out of existence or into compliance. I’d seen such plaques in California, and watched as they were politely hidden and universally ignored. Market-induced voluntary compliance would have done nothing to protect us because most of those killed and injured by brick buildings were on the footpath or in the street. All of my training in public policy told me that this is precisely the type of market failure where central government should step in.
In the Royal Commission hearings, the owner of each building that caused death testified. The building that collapsed on us was divided into 4 addresses, owned by 2 owners. The owner of the first 3 addresses wasn’t required to tie back the parapets and façade after the September 2010 earthquake, so didn’t. The owner of the 4th address strapped his building after September. Bits of it fell onto another bus, but no one was hurt. Strapping his building cost $180,000 he said. At the tea break in the hearings, the families of the dead and I could not contain our rage. If anyone had had the courage to require tie-backs, not just encourage them, many of the 12 who died beside me might still be alive.
Being a numbers type, I went straight home and issued an Official Information Act request to the national health service asking about my medical expenses. They answered, that saving my left leg had cost taxpayers $504,000.54. Approximately.
Part 5: From Royal Commission reports to Government proposals
In late 2012, the Royal Commission recommended that the Government change the Building Act in ways that would do the following, among other things (CERC 2012; Holmes, Luco, Turner 2014): 1) bring all existing buildings into the national Building Act instead of leaving decisions about earthquake prone buildings to the local authorities as the Building Acts of 1991 and 2004 had done; 2) create timelines for retrofitting all earthquake prone buildings to bring them up to 34% of “New Building Standard” within 15 years; and 3) fast-track the retrofitting of parapets and other unreinforced masonry components that may fail out-of-plane, to bring these non-structural bits up to 50% of code within 7 years. This 3rd recommendation was already a watering-down of engineering advice to the Commission.
During the Royal Commission hearings, many of us had begun a journey of trying to inspire a policy change. The team, loosely organized at best, comprised engineers, geologists, families of the dead, and me. Perhaps not surprisingly, I started my journey from a place of anger for those who died beside me, sorrow for my own pain, and terror of brick buildings. I expressed that raw anger in newspaper opinion pieces calling URM more risky than valuable (Brower 2013), and decrying the city council for failing to secure falling hazards before re-opening the city streets after September.
The day after the Royal Commission published its recommendations, the Government issued its proposed changes to the Building Act (MBIE 2013). To my eyes, of the three main recommendations about URM, the government proposed to do 1 and 2, but not 3. The Minister of Building and Construction admitted the Royal Commission’s recommendations did “go further” than the Government’s proposals (Williamson 2012).
I felt ill for a day. I had no place in the world; and the world had no place in me.
Part 6: Parliamentary hearings, round one
As the proposals continued towards Parliament, I replaced the anger with pragmatism and efficiency. In other words, I forced my angry heart to step back and let my science-informed-policy head take over. I looked again at the Royal Commission’s research (Ingham and Griffith 2011a,b) and recommendations (CERC 2012). Following their lead, I started to soften my stance. To acknowledge our seismicity, NZ should prioritise fixing the riskiest bits of the most exposed buildings. Allowing falling hazards to remain unattached was inadvertently using NZ’s public health system to subsidise building owners.
In New Zealand, the public is invited to submit our ideas on proposed government policies at least twice – when the Ministry publishes a proposal, and then when the Parliamentary Select Committee considers draft legislation. This is similar to the US’s process called “notice and comment” (Yackee 2005). NZ’s Ministry for Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE) handles the buildings portfolio. Currently the Minister for Building and Housing is the Honourable Dr Nick Smith, who is also Minister for the Environment (see Part 7).
In October 2013, USGS and its NZ equivalent GNS Science, invited me on a study tour of American cities with under-appreciated seismic risk — Seattle, Memphis, Charleston, and Washington, DC. I used it as a crash course in structural engineering, seismology, and risk. It also served as a team-building event for those of us quietly advocating seismic retrofitting.
So I combined what economic data I could gather with what I had learned on the study tour to write the best submission to Parliament that I could. I heeded Olshansky’s (2005) lessons of offering clear solutions to identified problems to an appropriate audience within an optimal window of opportunity. Following the Royal Commission’s lead (Ingham and Griffith 2011a,b; CERC 2012), I suggested fixing the parapets, chimneys, and other “fally-offy” bits of URM first because they appeared to be the cheapest to fix, the first to fall, and the deadliest when they do fall.
I noted that the Ministry’s research on earthquake-prone buildings paid close attention to (1) the cost of retrofitting, borne by building owners. It paid less close attention to (2) the cost of failing to retrofit, borne by the public. It paid no attention to (3) the value of the buildings in question (MBIE 2013). So I used government property valuations to re-frame the question from the costs of retrofitting to the costs of failing to retrofit URM buildings (Table A2, Appendix 1). The building that collapsed onto our bus was valued at $30,000.
Much of the modern scholarship on good governance and science-informed policy states or implies that governments should aim for the 3 Es – efficiency, effectiveness, and equity (Andrews and Entwistle 2010). I added 3 more Es — using economics to talk about efficiency, engineering to talk about effectiveness, and emotion to talk about equity (Brower 2014).
I used the three additional Es and the aforementioned tricks up my sleeve to be strategic. In public policy classes at Berkeley, they taught us never to fear speaking truth to power. But they also taught us to be cunning. Though I tried to ground my submission in cold hard logic, I did not shy away from pulling at heartstrings. I will even admit to consulting Riker’s (1986) “art of political manipulation” to counter the building owners’ inevitable argument that full retrofits can cost more than the building’s worth. I was not alone in this. Parliament received many other submissions supporting strengthening from many quarters: 24 community groups, 40 local and central government agencies, 17 engineering and geology firms or organisations, and 28 individuals. They also received submissions opposing further regulation, including 4 building owners’ collectives and 5 businesses.
Further, many of my rescuers on Colombo Street were engineers and builders. Many of them knew and shared my passion for changing the law. Many engineering firms and the professional associations of earthquake engineers were preparing submissions, and many shared my interest in prioritizing URM. So several of my rescuers who worked for engineering firms asked if their firms could use parts of my submission in theirs. The city of Christchurch also asked. Building owners were already arguing that the costs of the new legislation would outweigh the benefits, though they seemed to count only risk of total building collapse in a large earthquake, rather than the higher likelihood of URM failure in a moderate earthquake (Tailrisk Economics 2014); the Property Council argued the government should subsidise any mandatory remediation; and heritage advocates argued for longer timelines (http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/216415/govt-grants-extension-for-quake-strengthening). Given the contested political landscape, I shared my submission early and often with anyone who asked and even many who didn’t (Brower 2013a,b; 2015a,c,d).
In New Zealand, anyone who submits to Parliament can speak their mind, in five minutes or less. For my five minutes, I used cold-hearted political strategy thinly wrapped in emotion. I told the Parliamentary Committee that I did not envy their task. They would hear lots from the economic interest of building owners, but the voices for public safety will always be quieter (Wilson 1989; Olson 1965). They were not likely to hear from many of the victims of the quake because being crushed by a building is not an empowering experience; it doesn’t do wonders for the confidence. The voices of the dead and injured would be quiet at best. So I pleaded with the Committee to listen to the voices that they will never hear, and to hear those who have no voice. Sometimes, those least able to speak have the most to say.
When the Select Committee reported out the changes they’d made to the Bill in the autumn of 2014, there was still no special provision for URM and falling hazards like parapets. I first heard about it from a reporter, as I was walking in the sharply volcanic hills above Lyttelton Harbour where I live. “Ah well,” I thought, “at least I tried.”
Part 7: Parliamentary hearings, round two
The following week, there was an earthquake in Dunedin, about five hours south of Christchurch. Two of my colleagues at university told me I simply must write another opinion piece. “It’s done,” I said, “there’s nothing left to say.” “Doesn’t matter,” they said. “Write it anyway. Tell Parliament they’re wrong,” they said. So I did (Brower 2015a).
New Zealand being a small country, I bumped into my local Member of Parliament (MP) at the farmers market that weekend. She had read my opinion piece. She told me in no uncertain terms that I must send that opinion piece to Clayton (another Christchurch MP). “He’s on the Select Committee,” she said. “But Ruth,” I said, “it’s done; there is nothing left to say.” “Ann,” she said (rather sternly, if I’m honest), “it’s not done; there is more to say. Send it today, not next week.” If you’ve ever met the Honourable Ruth Dyson, you will know that she is not to be disobeyed. So I sent it.
On Tuesday, the Select Committee announced another round of submissions, hearings, and consideration. Having taught a first year undergraduate course about NZ Government to undergraduates for years, I knew this was rare for Parliament.
The only people who could submit in the second round were those who had submitted in the first round. Again, our loose national team of engineers, geologists, and others advocating seismic upgrades worked together on submissions. We all drilled in on our most important points, while applying them to the changes already proposed. This time I tried to push emotion to the side, and focus on pragmatism. In looking at the benefits of reinforcing masonry (Ingham and Griffith 2011b), I marveled that a safety conscious and fiscally conservative centre-right government would do anything other than fix the most dangerous bits first and leave the rest for later (Brower 2015b).
The second round of Select Committee hearings fell right in the middle of the university semester when I teach first-year Introduction to Government. We have MPs from all seven parties in Parliament give guest lectures. Many of the local MPs were on the Select Committee considering the Building Act amendments. So following Riker (1986), I abused my access and asked each and every one what was happening behind-the-scenes. They said the opposition parties were very much on the side of prioritizing URM and falling hazards, but the Minister wouldn’t move. In NZ, if the Minister won’t move, his party colleagues can’t either.
So once again I spoke to the Select Committee for five minutes, by phone this time, between classes. I crossed my fingers, but did not hold my breath.
Part 8: Five minutes with the Minister
A month later, and two weeks before the Select Committee was due to report out a second time, I got a phone call from a business reporter at the National Business Review (NBR) weekly newspaper. She was all fired up, and had been writing a series of articles about the Building Act saga. With a speck of hope, I rang a friend in Wellington to see if the Minister was coming round to our side following NBR pressure. Not a chance, he said.
With a slightly bruised speck of hope, I noticed that the Minister of Building, Housing, and Environment was to speak at an environmental conference in Auckland the following Friday. New Zealand being small, I was to speak at the same conference. It was a snowy August weekend and I had no plans. So I dusted the bruises off the speck of hope, and wrote one last opinion piece. I said the same thing that I and many others had said many times before, in slightly different words. Both Christchurch’s The Press and Auckland’s NZ Herald published it two days before the conference (Brower 2015a,b).
I knew the Minister’s private secretary for environment from previous work on the land law reforms. So at the conference, I asked for five minutes with the Minister. “You want to talk to him about buildings don’t you,” he said teasingly. “Yep,” I replied.
I got my five minutes. The Minister empathized with the idea of equity, he said. Parapets are a danger to those outside, not inside; and that’s not fair. My hopes rose, only to fall flat when he went on to say that he didn’t see a difference between a parapet and an “aircon” unit. I gulped and responded, “well Minister, I’d rather get hit by an air-conditioner than a parapet because air-conditioners are smaller and parapets fall further.” My hopes also rose when he said that he had an “open mind,” only to fall flat when he said “open mind” approximately 47 times in his 30 minute conference speech. “Ah well,” I thought, “I tried.”
The following week, I got a call from the Minister’s private secretary for buildings. Might I have time to have coffee with the minister on Friday? “Oh yes,” I said, “I think I can fit that into my schedule, thank you.”
On Friday, I had an hour-long meeting with the Minister in an inner city café. He told me about the changes he had made to the bill. He had halved the required time for fixing parapets and other URM falling hazards in the high and medium seismic zones of the country. The Select Committee was going to report out the following week, and might I be available to announce the changes with him? I hadn’t got all I wanted, but I had got most. So I invited a couple of my rescuers to join me, to meet the Minister and announce the changes (Smith 2015; Otago Daily Times 2015). I had to miss an hour of class.
On 8 May 2016, I watched Parliament pass the Building (Earthquake Prone Buildings) Amendment Act 2016, complete with the section the Minister calls the “Brower Amendment”. After festering for years with neither cross-party nor public support, the changes from both rounds of Select Committee hearings transformed a contentious bill to one that passed 120-1. MPs who spoke to the Bill were visibly proud to work together and listen to the public they serve and the scientists they fund.
During the Parliamentary dinner break, the Minister bought me dinner in the Beehive cafeteria. We had sticky date pudding for dessert, just to celebrate.
Part 9: Larger policy questions
It is easy to say that since 13 of us were crushed by a building, that building should have been fixed. It is much more difficult to know whether the new Building Act would have prevented all of the deaths in the streets due to falling masonry. If all of the following were true, then fewer facades and parapets would have fallen on people and vehicles: 1) the next earthquake had waited for the allowed remediation time to pass; 2) the central government had enforced the inspection timeframes on councils; 3) local councils had rigourously enforced the remediation timeframes on owners; 4) owners could organize finance and repairs within the timeframe; 5) there are enough qualified engineers and builders in NZ to carry out the inspections and repairs; 6) all the repairs were done well. That is a lot of “if”s. Indeed in January 2017, central government decided to mitigate items 1-4 by drastically shortening the remediation timeframe to 12 months and subsidizing repairs on URM buildings (Beehive 2017; MBIE 2017) within the Kaikoura M7.8 (14 November 2016) aftershock zone (Bradley et al 2017: p. 7), which contains the nation’s capital of Wellington.
Hindsight aside, there are economic reasons why buildings like the one that crushed the 13 of us had not been fixed. And there are political reasons why URM buildings are often left out of modern building codes (Olshansky 2005). In 2011, New Zealand had thousands of URM and other earthquake-prone buildings, many in struggling provincial towns with low building values. As Tables A1 and A2 in Appendix 1 suggest, full retrofits might not make sense if the costs exceed the value of the building. There are a few ways to think about how much of whose money to spend fixing which parts of what buildings. At the centre of such questions are considerations of public vs. private in risks, costs, and benefits.
One idea is to prioritise public benefit from culturally significant buildings. We could ask local councils to identify the most culturally significant heritage buildings, subsidise their retrofits, remove the heritage status from the less outstanding buildings, and make it easier to remove falling hazards (or entire buildings) previously protected with heritage status (Crampton and Meade 2016).
Another idea is to prioritise mitigating public risk. Parapets and other URM falling hazards are a public problem because the public bears the physical risk as parapets and facades pose a threat to passers-by more than inhabitants. Under NZ’s accident insurance scheme, public also bears the financial risk because the government absorbs all liability, no matter who is at fault. Owners of falling hazards thus receive an indirect subsidy. This can create a moral hazard, unwittingly encouraging risk by cheaply insuring against it. If there are to be subsidies, it is better to subsidise safety than risk. If there are not subsidies, then a national standard that prioritises fixing the most dangerous bits first and leaving the rest for later is another way to allocate limited resources efficiently, effectively, and equitably.
Part 10: Lessons from Christchurch
Changing New Zealand’s Building Act to prioritise “fally-offy bits” of buildings was not in my life plan. But extraordinary events can change ordinary life plans. I share the lessons I’ve learned on how the Little Guy can make a difference
Lessons from Christchurch on Making a Difference
Politics is an exercise in strategic hypocrisy. Choose your battles. The Little Guy can make a change, sometimes. What happens after the change is up to the public. If we revert to apathy, old patterns re-emerge. Write your point clearly, and share it. Early and often. To make a change, carefully seek and forcefully proclaim the truth as you see it. And never, ever, ever give up. Politics is a team sport. Catalysts do achieve change But almost never alone
Politics is an exercise in strategic hypocrisy. Don’t be afraid to change your position if it becomes necessary. And don’t be afraid to state things a bit too confidently or a bit too simply. In my successive newspaper opinion pieces, I changed both tone and message radically. I started with angry absolutism and ended with cold pragmatism. Similar to Olshansky’s (2005) findings, the more pragmatic the solution offered, the more positive the response I received.
Decisions are often not rational, and they often ignore technical advice (Stone 2001). Knowing that, as professionals interested in seismic preparedness, you’ve got to choose your battles carefully. There’s an optimum ratio between sleeping, trying, and failing. The battles you need to fight are those where you can’t count on sleeping if you failed to try. There’s a big difference between trying but failing, and failing to try. Ability to sleep lies in the balance.
In the 11th hour of the Building Act saga, I learned that the Little Guy can make a difference and MPs do listen, sometimes. But we Little Guys must team up, and play all the cards we’ve got very strategically (Pralle 2006).
Previous experience had taught me that we Little Guys have to remain vigilant even after a change occurs. If we spend too much time with the champagne after our victories, old patterns re-emerge (Brower 2008). If we Little Guys stop watching, we allow the Powers that Be to give the rhetoric to one side but the victory to the other (Edelman 1960). In other words, if we don’t participate actively in the implementation of NZ’s new Building Act, the rhetoric might favour safety while the decisions on individual buildings favour letting it slide.
This is neither conspiracy nor government malfeasance, just power imbalances. The decks are stacked against public interest groups. The economic interests behind the desire to avoid retrofitting will usually be stronger than the public interest behind the desire for safety (Olson 1965).
It can feel uncomfortable purporting to know The Way Forward for The Nation. To me, it felt arrogant and presumptuous. Who was I to impose my will on the nation? But when other people imposed their will, I realized it was well within my rights to do the same. In the end, it’s up to Parliament to decide. All I did was ask Parliament to consider a few things.
People often say that politics is a game, and it should get out of the way of rational decisions. But politics never gets out of the way (Stone 2001). For engineers, geologists, and other earthquake professionals reading Earthquake Spectra, it’s worth considering whether activism in some form is part of what you signed up for (Olshansky 2005; Porter 2016). In other words, earthquake preparedness at its best is more about people than models.
You might wish to take this as a Call to Arms. I will leave that up to you. But I will say that you create your world. Others will try to shape the world according to their vision. So it is your right, and perhaps your responsibility, to at least try to shape your world to your vision. Trying but failing is better than failing to try. I have no wish to tell you what your vision for the world should be, but I hope the lessons I’ve shared might help you to realise it.
In realizing your vision, consider taking a page from Margaret Mead. She is reported to have said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”