Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Yabba Dabba Doo

With soon-to-be hurricane Wilma apparently heading toward south Florida and several presidential photo-ops, this seems as good a time as any to reflect on the recent spate of natural disasters.

Yup, it's real. There have been more than the usual number of major catastrophes lately and it's getting to the point where the relief agencies are finding that donors' arms have suddenly gotten too short to reach their pockets. (And by the way, how many of you tossed in a sawbuck for the Kashmir earthquake? I thought so.)

In some circles, of course, the divine vengeance and/or end times theories are popular, but we'll let those circles turn on their own. Over here, I'll say that while many people have the impression that major earthquakes have become more frequent of late, statistically that does not seem to be the case. There probably is something to the theory that global warming is making very powerful hurricanes more likely, and we are indeed in a natural cycle of more frequent tropical cyclones.

But the basic reasons why, over the long term, we are hearing of more and worse natural disasters are: 1) The human population is greater than ever, and more of the earth's surface is densely populated by humans, including coastal areas vulnerable to storms and tsunamis; 2) Modern communications, rapid travel, economic globalization and international affairs have made us far more aware of events in formerly remote places. Even 20 years ago, I doubt that an earthquake in Kashmir would have been very big news in the U.S.

There are rational responses to natural dangers, obviously, but as with every problem there are issues of justice and social class. Poor people are more vulnerable for several reasons. They live in flimsier houses (in the case of Kashmir, in unframed masonry buildings with no chance of withstanding even a moderate earthquake); are more likely to live on low or otherwise vulnerable ground (viz. the 9th Ward of New Orleans); and have fewer resources to escape or recover (ibid).

In an enlightened world, we would anticipate these problems. At the very least, we can account for them in how we recover and rebuild. If the poor people of Kashmir have no option but to once again pile up bricks and concrete slabs, the next earthquake will have the same result. Here in the wealthy U.S., the west coast cities threatened by earthquakes have steadily been improving their buildings and bridges. Some say they haven't done as much as they should, but they've done enough that a major earthquake striking San Francisco Bay or Los Angeles County, while it will be a significant disaster, will probably cause deaths in the scores or possibly hundreds, not tens of thousands as in Kashmir.

So these events are natural, but their disastrous nature is to some extent amenable to human control. Never forget that.

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