In this artistic formulation, Florian Goldmann makes popular risk indexes fungible, specifically their conflation of natural disaster with financial disaster. He looks at Tokyo and its complex intersection of economy, high technology, and futurity to tell a story about the seismic fault line between the insurable and the uninsurable.
Based on research by the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies, the London-based insurance market Lloyd’s City Risk Index 2015‒2025 assesses anthropogenic as well as natural threats to the economies of large cities. Tokyo was ranked as the second riskiest city in the index’s overall rating, with windstorm, market crash, and oil-price shock being the biggest potential threats to its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) Examining risk from a systemic, finance-focused perspective, the factor of casualties presumably plays a role in regards to a lack of workforce at key production sites or the claims’ burden insurance and governments might face. Therefore, despite the effect the reviewed threats would ultimately have to the individ-ual, the ranking remains largely abstract. Earthquakes, ranked in fourth position in the Index, are an omnipresent threat in Japan and substantiate a specific culture of dealing with the risk of catastrophe.
In so-called Life Safety Learning Centers, the population is exercised to be prepared for the direct and indirect consequences of earthquakes as well as tsunami, typhoons, or volcanic activities. Perils are made tangible with representations to scale, such as miniature models, or simulations of specific scenarios. The impact of an earthquake is broken down to the human scale by reducing its trembling to the measure of a walk-in shaking table. Instructions, for what to do and when, if an earthquake is striking are given prior to entering the shaking table, which is likely designed to match a kitchen, living room, or office, including perils specific to each location.
The routine exposure to preset risk scenarios is meant to generate a feeling of control and security in the face of prospective catastrophes. The simulated trembling usually reproduces historical earthquakes, creating a sensibility for site- and situation-specific circumstances. The memory of historical events is a substantial factor of preparedness. September 1, the anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 for instance, is commemorated as Disas-ter Prevention Day, with extensive preparedness training exercised nationwide. The Kanto earthquake caused more than 100,000 fatalities and the destruction, by fire, of the majority of Tokyo’s wooden houses. Museums and memorial sites, in addition to facilitating com-memoration for the victims of earthquakes, tsunami, or volcanic eruptions, often run educa-tive programs at the same time, preparing the population for likely future catastrophes.
The prediction of catastrophes is linked to the reconstruction of historical events in much the same way as prevention and commemoration are intertwined. Earthquake prognosis is largely based on stochastic models of recurrent events. Yet, the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami had seen recalculations of the probabilities of future earthquakes, since the quake had likely altered the stress on adjacent fault lines. In 2012, the Japanese government’s estimate for a potentially devastating earthquake (magnitude 7 or higher) to happen within the next thirty years in Tokyo was 70 percent. In the same year, the Earth-quake Research Institute at Tokyo University announced the more alarming prediction of a probability of 70 percent for an earthquake of that scale to occur within the time span of just four years, and a probability of 98 percent for it to happen within the next thirty years Differing approaches to modeling and localization, i.e. either based on regions or along fault lines, as well as the convenient but misleading human-scale time span, might have led to these divergent numbers
With either percentage rate, the threat to Tokyo and many other cities in Japan is evident. Measures to optimize infrastructure- and building regulations as well as to prepare the population in anticipation of contingent catastrophes have long been implemented and are adjusted in correspondence with the impact of recurring earthquakes, as well as tsunami, typhoons, and accidents at industrial plants caused by the former.
Each event sets new benchmarks according to which a wide array of industrial, governmental, and insurance stakeholders reassess strategies of adapting to, preventing, and mitigating future catastrophes. The simultaneity of Japan’s industrialized economy and its densely populated agglomerations, coupled with its high exposure to geophysical as well as to climatically extreme events advanced the development of specialized industries that manage such risks. Specialized firms produce emergency supply kits or safeguards for household appliances, such as adjustable tension poles, used to secure furniture from falling over during tremors. Various auxiliary industries develop safety, backup, and filter systems for industrial sites to comply with state and insurance-imposed plant safety regulations. The procedure of approving the construction of nuclear power plants ‒ as is common in most nuclear-energy producing states ‒ is paradigmatic for this: the maximum credible accident (MCA) is conceived by scientifically- and technically informed experts. For the approval of the construction and operation to be granted, the plant needs to be built in such a way that it withstands the defined worst-case scenario. In the 1960s the MCA was defined as a malfunction in the primary cooling system leading to overheating of the reactor, which could in turn lead to a core meltdown. As precaution specifically designed, emergency-cooling systems have to be installed The MCA is adjusted according to advances in science and technology broadening the realm of what is considered credible. However, as became ever more apparent with the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant (which was triggered by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami), the risks embedded in the collision of natural phenomena and technology surpass the narrow thresholds of what was once defined as conceivable in scientific and technical terms. To confine the resulting evermore-radiating risks, more sectors of auxiliary industries have developed, mitigating the consequences of radioactive fallout to the human environment, reprocessing irradiated soil or measuring the amount of radionuclides contained in agricultural produce.
In fact, the term, risk, as we use it today has itself been extracted from a collision of the natural and the technical. It can be traced back to the Mediterranean, or rather to twelfth-century Italian city-states, where it appeared as risicum in contracts for maritime trade ventures The emergence of the new word in distinction to fortuna, denoting fortune as well as misfortune, coincided with the establishment of a distinction between investor and trader The trader delivering the cargo confronted the hazards of seafaring whereas the financial risk of a potential loss, due to shipwreck or pirate capture, was committed to the investor, who stayed ashore. While hazards (fortuna) were attributed to the environment, the gods, or the sea itself, risks were attributed to decisions The exposure to risk is deliberately sought, whereas hazards are generally avoided. Systematically approached, hazards can become risks. Virtually concealed in uncertainty, they can be extracted and commodified. Soon merchants began trading the risks of seafaring ventures themselves, constituting the financial technique of insurance The minefields of hazards permeating the antagonistic oceans became the risk-mining fields of early medieval maritime trade. Today large parts of the immaterial raw material that is risk are extracted from the unforeseeable rather than the uncertain. The mining fields have diverted from the spatially contingent seas to the equally antagonistic anthropogenic environment and its contingent futures.
The impacts of catastrophes are decreasingly localizable in conventional terms as they surpass thresholds of the measurable and the foreseeable, subduing the realm of what was unimaginable and considered uninsurable previously. While industrial production is increasingly fluid and placeless, with value chains accelerating and spreading globally, the risks insured along these chains still tend to be tied to locations, in the form of property. Minimizing the amount of time a completed component is stored at its manufacturing base, sending it off to the next station of the assembly line instantly, optimizes production. So even though physical cargo of Earth material composites is still rushing along the value chains, production becomes an increasingly virtual, placeless, and intangible endeavor, perceived as flow rather than as succession of sites and operations. New vulnerabilities occur along these quasi-virtual chains, as this globalized system can potentially be paralyzed with a single cut into one of its chain links. Even though this has been posing substantial challenges to the insurance industry, it has also fostered the generation of new fields for risk harvesting. The insurance industry works with complex models to translate emerging hazards into risks. To define insured value the potential financial stress needs to be calculable. Unlike earthquake prognosis models that are exclusively stochastic extrapolations, compiling prognosis based on reconstructions of the past, the insurance sector increasingly operates with alternative methods of quantifying risk. Improbabilities, rather than probabilities, are sought after. Data on contingent events are gathered, employing expert teams composed of actuaries as well as natural and social scientists, architects, and engineers. To quantify financial liabilities resulting from catastrophes, they take into account individual risks, recordings of weather and geophysical events, knowledge about buildings, industrial circumstances, and the potential for terrorist attacks. Where empirical data is not attainable, meaning is imposed on uncertainty through non-scientific forms of knowledge that are intuitive, emotional, aesthetic, moral, and speculative Expert judgment and proxies are used and the modeled results are as sensitive to these assumptions as they are to variations in input data The developed models circumscribe, localize, and give measure to catastrophic events that would otherwise remain deemed immeasurable due to their futurity and the lack of suitable historical data.
Loss events are not avoided, but resulting financial loss is controlled and mitigated.
The flows of production and supply chains endangered by natural as well as anthropogenic hazards, e.g. a tsunami destroying a monopolistic chip supplier’s factory or aridity leading to major crop loss, are made resistant on a financial, systemic, yet virtual scale.
Hazards are converted into something that is potentially lucrative to a few, whereas the farmers suffering from the drought might not be a factor in the equation at all. The individuals directly affected by globally spreading anthropogenic risks, generated along quasi-virtual production chains, remain locally bound; remain exposed, dwelling next to hazardous industrial sites. What has been detected and quantified as a contingent risk to the production chain remains a contingent hazard to them. Risk information gathered by the insurance and corresponding catastrophe modeling industry is still largely retained as intellectual property within each company and is rarely accessible to governments, businesses, or individual households
The threshold between insurable and uninsurable risks is gradually shifting towards the realm of the previously uninsurable, immeasurable. Measure is given to the de facto immeasurable by setting it in proportion to a reference point, as exemplified by the determination of the MCA for nuclear power plants. Such quantification of contingent risk is accompanied by a qualitative redefinition of what type of risk-taking can be considered “measured.” This mechanism is reflexive as the yet undefined, future risks will cancel and exceed existing norms of perception and depiction, requiring new ones to be produced concurrently. Potential new insurance holders need to be made aware of the hazards to which they might be exposed in the future, as “it’s hard to sell something to [them] if it hasn’t happened, if they don’t perceive it as a risk. Creating awareness for new risks and developing the suitable insurance products in realms previously regarded uninsurable supposedly entails trade- and techno-industrial ventures to take greater risks, which might in turn entail a demand for new insurance products. Insurance could therefore be considered a supply chain inherent to what has been termed the technosphere.
According to a belief that gained popularity in nineteenth-century Japan, earthquakes are caused by Namazu, a giant catfish that dwells beneath the archipelago. It was said that, whenever one of the gods in charge of keeping Namazu in check is distracted, devastating tremors occur. To hold Earthly phenomena, such as the wrongdoings of the ruling class, responsible for the distraction of the gods, was indeed common. To protect their houses from being destroyed, people would put up graphic reproductions of Namazu being controlled and, at times, punished for having caused previous earthquakes by the respective gods. Another popular theme of Namazu-e (lit. catfish pictures) was the depiction of representatives of the trades either those harmed by or who benefit from the consequences of earthquakes. Carpenters, for instance, were considered beneficiaries since it was up to them to rebuild the city
A contemporary Namazu-e might depict a giant drill hammer, surging ahead into the ocean of contingent futures. The water surface, which represents the present, ripples with the uncontrolled Namazu emerging. An insurance broker and an underwriter observe the situation from an offshore platform, applying a tape measure and taking notes.