Disaster by Choice

Disaster by Choice: How our Actions Turn Natural Hazards into Catastrophes
© 2020 Ilan Kelman
180 pages

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

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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8 Responses to Disaster by Choice

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    One word really……… Texas. Definitely a case in point!

    • Truly, though that storm was an extreme outlier. I’ve got family who’ve lived there for DECADES who said they’ve never seen sustained temperatures that low so close to the gulf. There’s a prepper I follow living in Texas who — even though he operates on a self-sustaining homestead, and this guys sideline is literally teaching disaster readiness — was surprised by the storm’s severity. His duck pond completely iced over, which is bizarre to think of.

      • Cyberkitten says:

        But the power company was told/advised 10 years ago that they needed to ‘winterise’ their equipment – and didn’t. At the very least they made a bad situation worse. At worst they made a problem into a disaster. A classic case here I think….

      • Ilan Kelman says:

        Thank you for the review and this discussion!

        South Texas’ 2021 winter is unusual, but has numerous precedents:
        1. Dallas https://www.weather.gov/fwd/dgr8mxmn
        2. Houston https://www.weather.gov/hgx/climate_iah_normals_feb
        Temperatures are in F not C. See especially 1899. In 1899, Texans did not have today’s power grids and roads. Hence, vulnerabilities caused this disaster, not the weather, even though this weather appears to be influenced by human-caused climate change.

        Same with the tornado example in the review. We can build structures to withstand tornado forces, but at times choices are made not to. There are reasons for these choices and consequently for permitting a tornado to destroy a neighbourhood. Hence, someone makes choices which let the tornado become a tornado disaster. See some brilliant tornado-related design analyses at https://doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)ST.1943-541X.0000622 and https://doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)LM.1943-5630.0000192

        Thank you again for the thoughts and conversation.

  2. Mudpuddle says:

    climate change is real altho most would rather ignore it… same with overpopulation… who was the Greek philosopher who was looking in the dark, holding a candle, for a sliver of intelligence? anywhere?

  3. I’ll have to add this one to my TBR. The earthquake thing is a trip. There was a fairly large earthquake in Oklahoma in 2016 due to fracking and we felt it all the way here in Omaha. It happened around 7-8 AM and I remember being partially awakened by the sensation that my bed was swaying back and forth. My sleep-deprived-but-foggy brain thought Eleanor (Who was THREE AT THE TIME) was pushing/moving the bed,, trying to wake me up. My mom was visiting that weekend, and thought the same thing, half-asleep on the couch. Her first thought was that Eleanor was trying to wake her up. Her next thought was that a car or truck had crashed into my building. (Side note though in our defense, Eleanor has always been weirdly/extremely strong, so we can’t be blamed for that. No joke, when she was six weeks old and admitted to the ER because of an extremely high fever, the nurse put the IV in her arm, and taped it with one of those boards so babies keep their arms straight. Eleanor’s solution was to bend her arm at the elbow back and forth until the board snapped. They had to put the IV in her foot after that.)

    • Half of our brain is dedicated to inventing explainations for things, no matter how inane. I’ve read of experiments where a person whose brain halves didn’t communicate was triggered electrochemically nto standing up. When asked why they stood up, the subject responded that they were thirsty and decided to get a coke — even though they didn’t make the decision, the neurologists running the experiment did.

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