Development of a methodology for analysing ecological risks in environmental management and research into environmental risks within a socio-cultural context
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Development of a methodology for analysing ecological risks in environmental management and research into environmental risks within a socio-cultural context

The production, extent and consumption of risks is one of the features of a functioning society whose development results in an accumulation of threats. According to U. Beck [1], contemporary risks, in contrast to threats of the past, come about as a result of modernisation and are generated through feelings of uncertainty and fear. There is a certain contradiction within modern society in that while the technical world has reduced risks associated with the impact of the power of Nature on humans, risks to the environment that threaten the very existence of civilisation and even life on our planet are on the increase. A history of the development of research into risk has been described in works by Russian and international specialists. A detailed review of thoughts on Western riskology can be found in studies by O. Yanits, A. Mozgovaya and E. Shlikovaya [2].

Cadaster Institute is drawing on the riskology theory in its development of a methodology for integrating ecological and health risks within environmental management practices. The heterogeneity of environmental risks is of particular relevance in this respect and is a subject to which A. Mol [3] has already devoted much attention. Mol has identified two main types of environmental risk, that is to say two kinds of risk-reflection. The first are mega-risks that affect human environment and have global impacts (natural disasters, major technological incidents etc.). The second type relates to everyday risks (dirty yards, poor quality drinking water, smoke from factory chimneys, litter, etc.). In the first example, risk-reflection is based on expert knowledge held by leading scientists which places certain demands on them and increases their responsibilities towards society and future generations. Secondly, risk-reflection is mainly based on social experience and the psychological mood of its recipients. We believe that in both instances the cultural background of those that hold information, whether they be predominately experts or resource managers, is reflected in risk-reflection.

Our research is based on the premise that the current increase in environmental riskogenics is reflected in institutional changes and constant adjustments to risk instruments which involve: Firstly, an improvement in particular regulatory mechanisms achieved through real developments in the theory of risk management as applied to the environmental sector and recognised as the process for the adoption and implementation of management decisions aimed at reducing the likelihood of adverse effects and minimising potential losses incurred through its implementation. Secondly, procedures for health risk assessments. The socio-cultural dimension also plays an important role here since the humanity exists “within” a culture and is inseparable from it. His whole relationship with nature is mediated by culture which is why the issue of ecological risks leads us to a consideration of a range of cultural problems.

A comprehensive study of the ecological risks that threaten regional communities, towns and villages, together with devising ways in which such risks can be prevented, is an important aspect of Cadaster Institute’s methodological approach. We have identified and described two groups of environmental risk factors that build on Mol’s work in planning specific research tasks: (A) those that have been identified by experts as posing real threats to the lives and health of the public as well as environmental safety and (B) those that are fixed in the mind, rooted in strong elements of psychology, in Western cultural non-reflexive assessments, myths and phobias, in prescribed cultural cognitive procedures, axiological constructs and models for resolving typical everyday issues in the system of humans, nature, and the society. These groups of factors are often contradictory and facilitate the development of theoretical and methodological approaches in creating an integrated system for analysing environmental risks, principles and features for identifying and highlighting risk cycles that take regional socio-cultural characteristics into account. No less relevant is the task of providing information support for appropriate risk-reflexivity involving different social groups.

Research undertaken by Cadaster Institute on real threats to the lives and health of the public and to environmental safety has involved identifying integrated impacts on environmental components and factors that can affect public health. Obtaining a picture of regional features of health and spatial risks can be achieved by using a medical geographic mapping system. The methodology for this research is based on the theory of causality (see work by I. V. Davidov), the theory of natural focality (see work by E. N. Pavlovsky, V. Y. Podolyan) and the theory of geographic pathology (see work by A. P. Avtsin), as well as using medical geographic models devised by B. B. Prokhorov, E. L. Reich, S. M. Malkhazovaya, V. S. Tikunov, S. A. Kurolap et al. Scientific medical and geographic approaches are an integral part of the key stages of public health risk assessment procedures and is the subject of research being undertaken by a specialist unit [4] within Cadaster Institute known as the Centre for Human Risk Assessments. In this research, we are using approaches developed by G. G. Onishchenko, S. L. Avaliani, B. A. Revich, K. A. Bushtuevaya, N. V. Zaitsevaya, as well as works by M. Brodi, D. Hattis, R. Goble, A. Koines, M. A. Callahan et al.

Our view is that a differentiated regional analysis of the risk area is a pressing requirement in determining types of riskogenics and their associated dynamic characteristics whose principal tool is a system of medical and ecological geographic cartography.

Operating businesses and facilities that have previously been responsible for discharging ecologically damaging pollutants are sources of environmental risks. Together, they create a “pulsing” ecological risk area, accompanied by structural changes and spatial organisation of the business sector. In fact, processes that were set in train over recent decades to restrict the economic sector are now bringing about significant change within the regional structure of environmental risks. In cities that are host to new high-tech industries and where the economy is improving there is an inexorable growth in risks of modernisation which can happen at any time. Major environmental risks are becoming more and more concentrated in towns and villages [5], particularly in areas where there are increased riskogenics affecting growth as a result of a growing imbalance in climate and anthropogenic impacts on the natural environment, together with the creation and dissemination of new (but not always “green”) technologies. A decline in economic activity in some regions has led to an increase in the number of areas facing highly dangerous socio-environmental risks which are linked to reductions in budgets earmarked for natural resource use (mainly in single industry towns) and a rise in the number of formerly polluting facilities (e.g. private companies and uneconomic mines, etc., which have ended up in the hands of local authorities). Here, one is faced with an inevitable rise in risks of irresponsible behaviour by the population in their use of widely available natural resources and goods (e.g. deforestation, poaching etc.).

There is also a growing demand for regionalised approaches to natural resource management aimed at reducing specific ecological risks and developing new perspectives for environmental engineering. Therefore, it is this structure of risks in any given area that determines the arrangement of priorities within a regional administration.

Given the relevance of this particular issue, research into the risk-producing factor in the development of regions and local areas, as well as the impact of risk-reflection on management mechanisms, confirms the need for a detailed review of the area and dynamics of ecological and public health risks. Research into this and many other scientific related issues is carried out by Cadaster Institute.

Our research allows us to study the dynamics of risk processes, e.g. not only at the narrow risk level, but all the way to the very point of risk or vice-versa, and to go beyond the boundaries of a local region in capturing a vast geographic risk area. New research tools being employed as part of Cadaster Institute’s scientific practices provide the scope for assessing and building evolutionary risk models that not only address the effect of chemical factors and physical impacts, but also climate change issues that can be used in the study of the riskogenics of space in the long-term with reference to global riskogenics. Results obtained from risk assessment research have allowed us to determine the features and components of risk assessments that inform the management decision-making process relating to regional sustainable development (of towns and villages). In this context, careful use of the precautionary principle when considering legitimate economic costs and the obvious benefits to human health and environmental protection is a key element in risk management practices.

A study initiated by Cadaster Institute in recent years into everyday ecological risks has been informed by social know-how and psychological perspectives derived from Western cultural non-reflective assessments, myths and phobias and prescribed cultural models for resolving typical everyday issues associated with the interrelationships in the system of humans, nature and the society. At the heart of factors that generate everyday environmental risks lies the fact that humans cannot in principle know the full scale of the far-reaching environmental consequences of their actions which, in a wider philosophical context, reveals a lack of foresight and anticipation of future events. Humans operate in a state of incomplete and partial knowledge and information (plus unavoidable partial distortion) in real time situations where decisions are being made and implemented. In the course of their work, humans make mistakes, and in so doing ruin a perfect action plan.

Conflicts involving individual and group interests in relation to natural resource use, ecological principles, cultures and sub-cultures, ethnic and social constraints involved in the range of acceptable solutions available to practical resource managers, styles and ways of life in communing with Nature, all have a tendency to create chaos within a person’s being. An ecological culture can be regarded as a struggle with the chaotic nature of these relationships. It provides a structure for continual corrections of errors, adjustments, integrated actions and regulation through appropriate back-up systems. In every country, there are special forms and types of activity through which chaos can be managed and professions identified, and in which a social environment is created where standards and rules governing such activities are established [6].

Social and cultural regulators in the environmental sector are the embodiment of a vast range of formal and informal environmental institutions. The older the culture the more “adaptable” it is to Nature. Older and more established social institutions have both a lower level of chaos and more effective mechanisms in place for localising its effects [7].

There are two fields of research that are relevant when analysing everyday environmental risks. The first focuses on the specifics of socio-cultural limits and control over institutional environmental change. This area of research addresses the tendencies for chaosisation and organisation of public environmental activities that are part of national cultures. The second research area relates to how Russian culture reacts to the import of external environmental institutions and institutional change in national and regional environmental systems. In this context, the modernisation transfer from a static and traditional society to a more dynamic one has attracted particular interest. Our experience from studying the problem of preventing pollution from the production of waste and consumption has shown the potential for such an analysis. Consequently, a study of the dual nature of environmental risks (i.e., mega-risks and those that arise on a daily basis) makes it possible to fine-tune methodological approaches to environmental management as the risk-reflections for both these risk types differ significantly from one another. Taken together, these environmental risks can be included within a single risk system that determines the behaviour of resource managers. Environmental objectives and priorities depend on the status of a specific risk within a risk-reflection structure. The intensity of the first risk group (mega-risks) depends to a large extent on their compilers, together with the enhanced role and responsibility of expert knowledge to humanity. In general, the reflection of mega-risks is mainly achieved through action at national and supranational levels, while reflection of everyday risks is mainly the prerogative of regional and local managers.

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