Gilbert F. White
have the capacity to deal with a variety of components of a complex situation.
So, geographers found it easier to deal with the notion of alternatives in water
management. They found it easier than economists or engineers to deal with
problems of floodplain occupance.
I would say that most of what I've done in the field of natural hazards,
including floods, has involved a primarily geographic approach. It has always
asked what are the ways in which society can adjust to the distinctive
characteristics of any natural setting in terms of place and location. This
requires looking at what the experience has been in any other places similar
to the natural site. It also requires looking at what would be the constraints
that would be set by that natural or social environment to activities that could
be carried on.
I've followed the same kind of approach in dealing with domestic water
supply in developing countries. I think it is distinctively, but not exclusively,
geographic. It was consistent for me to work on the NSF-supported High
School Geography Project during the 1970s while doing research on hazards.
Q: Have you ever used historians in the institute? There is a dimension of time.
A: We've been delinquent in that. We've had a few historians who have been
interested, but by and large either they haven't wanted to take part or we
haven't been skillful in enlisting them. I'll give you as an example people
that have worked with me--Robert Kates and Kenneth Hare-who are doing
similar work and who have been using historians. A number of people have
applied this approach to the broad problem of what would be the effects on
human society and environment of a change in climate that might be induced,
for example, by changes in C02 or other greenhouse gases. And the
Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, with which I'd been
associated, has just published a comprehensive report on the different methods
that could be followed to estimate the effects of a climate change. All too
often, meteorologists or biologists jump to very quick conclusions that if there
were a one degree change in the temperature there would be specific social
In that effort there are several historians who are participating. They are
saying let's look back to any periods witnessing extreme climate stresses in
history and ask what can we learn of the way in which societies responded at