Desaster Paradox and Capacity Theory

(Volker von Prittwitz/02.03.2011)


Heavy hardly avoidable burdens are usually not perceived as challenging problem; avoidable low burdens, in contrast, often trigger goal-directed action based on a clear problem-perception. So far, objective burdens and subjective problem-awareness variate in a negative way with each other.

This desaster paradox has been showed first from air pollution and nuclear immissions during and after the desaster of Tschernobyl  (Prittwitz 1990: 13-26). So modern clean air policy did not start from most heavily polluted countries, but from lower polluted while relatively well endowed countries, such as Japan, USA, Sweden and later on the European community - a conclusion that can be widened to environmental policy and modern energy policy at all.

How relevant this pattern constantly is, turned out in the German dioxin scandal from January 2011: This scandal, that preoccupied the media through some weeks, referred to heigthened dioxin and furan pollution of eggs, chicken and pork by criminal behaviour of an animal feed firm. Meanwhile, however, it became clear that the administrative dioxin limits for beef are more than the double compared with eggs and pork. With respect to fish, particularly fat fish, even limits are in force that exceed the limits of eggs and pork up to 40 times. A current online article (down load February 28, 2011) says on that issue (own translation from German): 

... Obviously the EC has oriented itself in setting these limits by what can be practically realized. If the same limits were in force for animals of the sea as for animals on ground, many of them were no longer allowed to be sold. That has been refirmed by a speaker of the federal office for consumer protection and food safety: In setting pollution limits, the current basic pollution played a relevant role: "Otherwise you had to close the Baltic Sea" .(Frankfurter Rundschau-Online, abgerufen am 28.2.2011:

The scandalized exceeding of the EC dioxin limits for eggs, chicken and pork is obviously a detail compared to the hight of the dioxin limits that are durably in force for beef and above all for fish. These high loads, that seem to be unavoidable, are repressed, while much lower avoidable loads result in a public scandal through weeks...

The desaster paradox can be showed also with many other areas, such as health policy (protection of non-smokers not until the pollution by smokers had drastically fallen/Prittwitz 1993), social policy (corresponding with the rise of welfare), migration (emigrants are usually young and relatively well endowed people) as well as foreign policy towards despots (no or weak critics in times of absolute despoty, sharp critics and resistance facing a strong democratic opposition).


Capacity Theory

The paradox can be explained by capacity theory: Problems are usually not perceived as long as they are not be practically manageable. Because a system without sufficient capacities would overtax itself by getting aware of an (overcomplex) problem, and it would get into a possibly existential legitimation trap. In those situations, rational actors, therefore, tend to problem shifting or other similar strategies.

In case a problem is manageable by existing or easily gettable means, also complex problems can be clearly perceived as a challenge for goal-directed action.  Often problems are even perceived in an overextended "artificial" manner. In doing this, actors who dispose at capacities for problem solving, try to find and to publish problems that can legitimaze and foster the use of their capacities.

These connections are valid not only for long-term processes, such as long-term changes of values (see Ronald Ingleharts explanation of postmaterialistic value change from suitable economic preconditions and a period of socialisation/Inglehart 1977, 1998); rather also short-term jumps of evaluation can be explained. An example for that is the short-term rise of values of human rights and democratic participation towards arabic despots: As long as those despoties seemed to be unchangeable and politically unavoidable (missing capacities), suppression, torture and killing of regime adversaries by those regimes were psychologically repressed and without significvant political weight. Not until democratisation movements had developed in states such as Tunesia, Egypt, and Lybia, this kind of political perception and behaviour was changing....



Stimulated by capacity theory, political processes, structures and forms of behavior can be analysed in a new flash light - a win of critique and analysis: Using this theory, politics can be analysed and critisiced in a more realistic way. For the concept of practical action, capacities of any type (technical, economic, political, institutional, administrativ-organizatinal) get more weight. In getting aware of this fact, capacity building should not mixed up with routinely increasing funds for influential actors, particularly administrative bodies. Rather, it is about how to sensivitely get aware given capacities of action and to develop those capacities in a given context.



Prof. Dr. Volker von Prittwitz

Freie Universität Berlin/Otto-Suhr-Institut für Politikwissenschaft

Ihnestraße 21, 14195 Berlin

Email:; Homepage:



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Inglehart, Ronald (1998): Modernisierung und Postmodernisierung. Kultureller, wirtschaftlicher und politischer Wandel in 43 Gesellschaften, Frankfurt am Main.

Prittwitz, Volker von (1990): Das Katastrophenparadox. Elemente einer Theorie der Umweltpolitik, Opladen; 

Prittwitz, Volker von (1993): Katastrophenparadox und Handlungskapazität. Theoretische Orientierungen der Politikanalyse, in: Adrienne Heritier (Hrsg.), Policy-Analyse, Sonderheft 24 der Politischen Vierteljahresschrift, S. 328-357.

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