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Beyond the volcanic risk. To defuse the announced disaster of Vesuvius

Giovanni Gugg

*Corresponding author: Giovanni Gugg giovanni.gugg@unina.it


The anthropology of risks and disasters has been characterized in recent years by a strong focus on aspects of contemporary life, also developing a lively interdisciplinary vocation. The subject of these studies is multifaceted and complex, because during an emergency, or its future planning, there are political and legal discussions that can involve a multitude of actors, including lawyers, consultants, groups formed to represent victims or residents, social movements, businessmen, politicians, public officials and journalists. These figures contribute to the social construction of disaster, or risk, so anthropology can help to untangle these relationships.
Similar dynamics are observable even before a disaster, as in the case of my contribution: Vesuvius has not erupted in 75 years and volcanologists say that it will remain dormant for a long time, however since 1995 a planning of the future volcanic eruption has been initiated that has changed the relationship of residents with the territory, as well as with time. On the one hand, in the same year, the creation of the Vesuvius National Park, within a layout concentric to the red zone, further regulated the use and attendance of the territory; on the other hand, with the emergency planning, the future catastrophe has been transformed: it is no longer a hypothetical eventuality but, in a sense, it is officially announced. In other words, the scenarios of the future have begun to influence the present time: they produce norms, establish behaviors, determine relationships, and become reality. The Vesuvius Emergency Plan and the Evacuation Plan are “governmental devices”, or “non-human social actors” that, in addition to producing a regulated space and time, determine the daily practices of the residents and their conception of the situation in which they live.
This has helped to model various social elaborations of risk, which I discuss in my contribution, underlining how there are associations and communities that do not ignore the risk, nor have a fatalistic attitude, but are active to rebuild a more equitable and sustainable relationship between humans and the ecosystem. Through the ethnographic approach, the need emerged to overcome the emergency logic and to induce public institutions to work also on risk mitigation, i.e. by fostering democratic participation, requalifying cities, taking action to eliminate social vulnerability; in other words, the inhabitants of the Vesuvian area are not indifferent to the threat of the volcano, but they have a different and differentiated approach that questions some simplifications on the “prevention society”, the “risk culture” and a certain way of understanding “development”.

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