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Risky business

Art and Science of Managing Public Risks By V.S. Ramamurthy, Dinesh K. Srivastava and Shailesh Nayak; Published by World Scientific Publishing; 414 pages; $58

The challenges that humanity faces are easily detailed. But what about the solutions?

We live in an increasingly global and interconnected world. Our planet is bursting at its seams trying to provide resources for the comfort and survival of humans and other species. Our ecosystems are best described as hard-to-model Complex Adaptive Systems. All of this leads to a set of risks as we try to adapt, attempt to survive, and grow. Some of these risks are endemic to our planet; others are emerging as our societies connect intricately and as technology advances. Some risks are well known and have been so for ages; others have come to light only recently. It is in this context that V.S. Ramamurthy, Dinesh K. Srivastava and Shailesh Nayak bring forth their book Art and Science of Managing Public Risks

Coming from widely varied backgrounds — nuclear science, climate science, and earth science - the authors draw upon both extant research as well as their extensive experience to enumerate a variety of public risks. In attempting to provide a comprehensive list, the authors discuss natural, biological, technological, ecological, and industrial risks in detail. One of the strengths of this book is that it is an easy read with an extensive overview of both risks as well as easy-to-understand expositions of the rationale or science behind them: how tsunamis occur, for instance, is lucidly explained in the chapter on natural risks, and will be of interest even to readers who don't have a science background.

The authors also constantly engage the reader with tidbits of trivia: the story of Tu Youyou and his discovery of a cure for malaria from plants mentioned in ancient Chinese texts, for instance; or the origin of the term 'quarantine' — used quite often today — from the 'black death'; or why the 'Spanish Flu' is actually a misnomer, and so on. The authors also do an excellent job of showcasing key actors who contributed to the narrative of the risks discussed: the unusual story of Waldemar Haffkine and the little-known story of Birsa Munda being two cases in point. In doing so, the authors engage the readers in the story of the evolution of several risks. The use of detailed case studies, such as a graphical description of the historical antecedents of the Bhopal Gas Disaster, simultaneously drives home the nature of the risk discussed, while providing a relatable experience for the reader. 


Several important and contemporary themes emerge in the book. The evolution of scientific thought in isolating causes and combating risks is well illustrated in the section on biological risks. The story of the Panama Canal illustrates the interconnectedness and systemic nature of risks by showing how the built and the natural environment influence each other. The book also touches upon the non-rationale side of risk management — the politicisation of certain risks (COVID-19, for instance) — and the benefits of collaborative problem solving in resolving risks. The authors also point out the importance of good science writing in educating the masses on the impact of scientifically defined risks. 

Our Planet is bursting at its seams trying to provide for humans and other species.

One highlight of the book is the exposition of a set of less-discussed, emerging risks: those arising from Artificial Intelligence and the ubiquitous nature of data today, for instance. Overall, the book does an excellent job of conveying a simple message: if we do not get our act together regarding the management of a system of interconnected risks, we are in trouble.

The book conveys a simple message: if we don’t get our act together and manage the system of interconnected risks, we are in trouble.

Yet, the book leaves us wanting on a few counts. While the title piques our interest in the management of risks, the book is more of a compendium of risks rather than a treatise on their management, which it treats very lightly. Risk management is an established field, with ideas stemming from probabilistic analysis, to more contemporary methods rooted in fields such as behavioural economics. However, these ideas are largely ignored. Consequently, while the book highlights a comprehensive list of challenges, very little by way of 'solutioning' is done. Furthermore, there is too great a focus on catastrophic risks and not as much on everyday risks, such as traffic accidents. Indicatively, the construction sector, which exemplifies extremely unsafe practices and risks, is one of many sectors that are absent from this book. While every chapter contains a discussion section at the end, this section is too brief and does not synthesise the narrative or put forward a conclusive point of view.

Despite these limitations, the book is a fast-paced read and is worth picking up if you would like to sample the breadth of challenges that humanity faces.

Dr Ashwin Mahalingam is Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, 
IIT Madras.


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