Slow burn

When the kind invitation came to contribute to this "After the Paper" series – to describe "the impact that your paper had, how it affected your career, and what further opportunities or challenges followed the publication" – my first thought was, "It's been two years. Ask me in another twenty."
Slow burn

Here's my candid take.

Our article "Building back bigger in hurricane strike zones" (Lazarus et al., Nature Sustainability, 2018) was published in December, 2018. Thus far? We've been cited a few times. The article enjoyed a healthy run of attention in news and social-media outlets, according to Altmetric, and was uploaded to PreventionWeb, the global knowledge sharing platform on disaster risk reduction, managed by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. We wrote a blog post about it for this Sustainability Community. (An unformatted postprint of the article is freely available via EarthArXiv). 

Those are the sort of visible impacts that metrics track. But the most complex impacts – on my intellectual and working life, at least – are comparatively invisible, and slow to develop.

Shortly after "building back bigger" went live, I was greenlighted to apply for a major fellowship that would use the article as leverage for its central premise. A bid of that scale has a way of squeezing all other projects out of the room. In my case, the application consumed seven months of 2019, and the beginning of 2020. Somewhere in the midst of bashing out drafts, the process took a critical turn when I reached out to – that is, cold-called – about a dozen researchers, most of whom I'd never met, from various disciplines to ask if they'd consider forming a kind of working group, should the funding come through. To my genuine surprise, nearly all of them said yes. They liked the concept. The coalescence of the would-be group was buoying. It felt alchemic. I started having that dangerous feeling that the proposal stood a decent chance.

In the end, the application came up short. There would be no working group. Could I revamp the idea for a different call? Yes. But I suddenly felt very tired.

That was March, 2020. Fast-forward to August. Global events, rapidly unfolding and unravelling, made March seem like a figment of my imagination, and my rejected bid was less than inconsequential.

With higher-education systems creaking under the strain of the pandemic and reckoning with resurgent imperatives that social in/justice be addressed through structural institutional change, I decided to overhaul my teaching. I converted my module for first-semester, first-year students, called "Dangerous World," from a lecture-style survey into a podcast called "Geographies of Risk."

The alternative format would be conducive to online delivery, and give students a break from slide decks. But the project – more DIY pirate-radio than polished production – would also let me road-test a couple of ideas.

Headers for the "Geographies of Risk" podcast. (Image: E Lazarus)

First, I saw the podcast as a chance to explode the narrow conception of risk in which I've been working. This would be an opportunity to talk shop with a roster of researchers across many different disciplines who think deeply about risk in all kinds of contexts and settings. I wanted to hear them unpack in their own words the questions and issues that absorb them.

Second, with "building back bigger" in mind, I wanted to explore how disaster recovery over extended time scales manifests across a broad thematic swath. Indeed, in our "building back bigger" article, the fact that we quantified changes in house size that took years to emerge, rather than focus on immediate post-hurricane damages, turned out to be a notable aspect of our analysis. So if such patterns could be found in the built environment, what other social/economic/political dynamics in hazard-prone places might only be visible from a longitudinal vantage? How do geographies of risk get shaped by historical legacies? And how do hazard events erase or reinforce those legacies? What kinds of land-use transformations take advantage of disaster events – and what are the ramifications they usher in?

The podcast has been a joy to make – and it's available to download, for anyone who might be interested. A few of the interviews are with people I first contacted over a year ago, for the hypothetical working group. In many of the conversations, you can hear the implications of "building back bigger" murmuring in the background – the ways in which the dynamics of disaster recovery can become effectively decoupled from disaster risk reduction.

A serendipitous impact of the "building back bigger" article, two years on, is this constellation of inspiring researchers who, when I asked if I could interview them about their work, said yes. These fresh connections – to these people, to these ideas – will surely inform the shape of my own research ahead, whatever that turns out to be. Ask me in twenty years.

Eli Lazarus (@envidynxlab)

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