Disaster by Choice: How our Actions Turn Natural Hazards into Catastrophes
© 2020 Ilan Kelman
What makes a natural event — rising waters, a hurricane, a sudden slip of tectonic plates — a disaster? Human suffering — and Illan Kelman argues in Disaster by Choice that that suffering is usually self-inflicted. He posits that there’s nearly no such thing as a natural disaster, because virtually all disaster are a result of humans not making adequate preparations. He allows for some outliers, like ice ages, supervolcano eruptions, and asteroid impacts, but otherwise puts the onus of calamities squarely on our shoulders. A reader can understand Kelman’s belief, to a point: an ice storm that hits a city like Boston with the resources and knowledge to prepare for it will be perceived very differently than an ice storm that hits say, Houston. A tornado that destroys a neighborhood, though, is still disastrous even if 100% of the previous residents were ready for it and squirreled away in their basements. Most of the book consists of evaluations of various disasters, and the human-generated risk factors involved: we built on infill land, we put in levees and assume they won’t break, we pretend earthquakes only ever happen in California and never in New England, etc. Sometimes a certain degree of readiness, like the aforementioned levee, can make us sloppy in other respects: since the levees won’t break, we don’t need to assume our ground floors will flood….even though they stil can, from sources unrelated to hurricanes. Even if we live in hazardous areas, preparations can be made to make people living there far less vulnerable. There are actions that even those living in wildfire-prone zones can take to greatly mitigate their risk.
Far too often, however ,we don’t. Part of this owes to humanity’s perennial short-sightedness: was it Hegel or Twain who commented that the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t? But politicians also neglect basic maintenance and subsidize poor decisions, like bankrolling flood insurance for homeowners who want to live on the beach but don’t want to cover the risk themselves. There are also societal factors, from clothing & gender roles (women in some countries are more at risk to tsunamis and flooding, having not been taught to swim) to poverty and political corruption. . I appreciated Kelman’s perspective, especially in light of the last year: it’s a sober book, one that acknowledges how complicated risk mitigation is, but doesn’t shy away from urging citizens everywhere to take inventory of their and their local community’s array of risks, and to make preparations accordingly.
Inquisitive Biologist’s review