Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Fool's Paradise

Now, following the Burmese cyclone, we have the Sichuan earthquake. I fear the death toll announced as of this post, 5,000 or so, will turn out to be far lower than the reality. People can't stop earthquakes any more than they can stop cyclones, but are these really "natural" disasters?

The only reason earthquakes are dangerous to humans is because of our built environment. People sitting out in the open will enjoy the ride, that's all. Even living in huts made of sticks and wattle, or teepees, people are perfectly safe from earthquakes. Earthquakes are catastrophes of civilization. They kill and injure us because they make our buildings fall down on top of us.

As I discussed regarding the Kashmiri earthquake two winters ago, the catastrophe was ultimately traceable to deforestation. Buildings in that region used to be wood framed, and would have been at little risk from even the most severe earthquake. But people cut down all the trees, and started to make unframed masonry structures. Then the earthquake came, and they died by the tens of thousands, and the rest were left homeless.

The region in China where the recent earthquake happened is prone to earthquakes and has had catastrophic tremors in living memory. But, as the report linked above indicates, schools, hospitals and factories have collapsed. Officials knew there would be an earthquake sooner or later, but they put up structures that were guaranteed to kill the people inside when that day came. We knew for 15 years or more that a major hurricane would drown New Orleans, but we didn't do anything about it. The Burmese government, such as it is, knew or certainly should have known that the mangrove forests protected the delta against the ocean, but they let them be cut down anyway to develop aquaculture. We know that a serious pandemic of one kind or another -- and it doesn't have to be H5N1 influenza -- will overload the health care system and leave people dying in the hallways and parking lots, but the only response so far is to come up with a list of who should be rescued first.

This is something basic about human nature. We just can't respond adequately to abstract dangers that we don't experience regularly but that somebody has worked out intellectually as being likely to happen. Making a low-cost proposal for that hospital or school building, and bringing it in under budget, is what got local Chinese officials good reviews and promotions. A bureaucrat who argued too strenuously to spend money on making the buildings earthquake proof would be exiled to Inner Mongolia. Americans don't want government telling them they can't build houses on barrier islands or taxing them to make preparations for something that hasn't happened since 1918. We just can't process dangers that have a huge magnitude but a low or unknown probability, or at least they can't compete with immediate and known rewards.

So how are we ever going to take on the problem of global climate change?

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