Natural Disaster?

On NPR yesterday, there was a long report on the state of New Orleans six months after the Katrina. One reporter remarked that the citizens of the city hold very strongly to a view, not widely shared outside of the city, that Katrina was NOT a natural disaster. That is, the devastation was the result of the government letting down the people of New Orleans and that there is nothing wrong with them wanting to move back in and rebuild the place the way it was. The people who express this view cite the poor or nonexistent maintenance of the levees and seawalls, not to mention the bungled response to it all.  As any geographer will tell you, there is some sense to this point of view. People who study famines in the modern world point out that the nutritional disasters that appear in the news are rarely the result of just a lack of rain. No, they come about because of land use patterns, political strife that frustrates distribution of food, corruption, the machinations of the world economy that encourages market farming rather than subsistence agriculture, and decrepit transportation networks. Which is to say that when a drought occurs, it pushes a stressed and dysfunctional system past the limit so that people starve, while in another society, better run, the weather wouldn’t have such a bad effect. It is the interaction of human society with the environment that produces the conditions for food shortages, which we call famine.

This has been recognized for some time, as Karl Marx and others pointed out in the 19th century that British policies had produced widespread hunger in Ireland and India, despite the fact that those countries had the material wherewithal to feed themselves. In fact, India had exported foodstuffs before the imposition of the British Raj. So, the New Orleaneans have a point, they do.  Of course, so do their critics.

Why was there so much development in low lying areas below sea level except for the fact that some greedy real estate people wanted to make a quick buck? How much money should a society spend to protect and ensure the safety of such areas? If resources are infinite, anything is possible, but they never are. If you build your house on the beach and it’s washed away at the first storm, is that a natural disaster, or is it due to the fact that nobody spent millions of dollars to put a seawall around you? Just what is the boundary between natural and human, after all? Isn’t that the fundamental unresolved question here? There is an interaction, but is there a boundary, aside from the one we impose for budget purposes. (Keep in mind that millions of dollars are at stake for people who claim property losses: If from flood, they are paid; if due to engineering failure of levees, they are not.)

I am reminded of the exchange of letters between Voltaire and Rousseau after the great quake and tsunami that destroyed Lisbon in the 18th century. This natural disaster was seen as a blow to over optimistic religion of benign deism that some held. Why would God,even one so uninvolved in day to day running of the universe, permit this? Voltaire sees it as proof of the indifference, even hostility, of nature to man and his ambitions. Rousseau, however, raises this point:

Without leaving your Lisbon subject, concede, for example, that it was hardly nature who assembled there twenty-thousand houses of six or seven stories. If the residents of this large city had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer or perhaps none at all.

In other words, this was no natural disaster. It was a human one. Plan your settlements differently, and the risks from quakes will be vastly reduced. Farsighted guy, that Jean Jacques! Again, the interaction of man and nature produces disaster on this scale. We cannot assume that our side of the equation is irrelevant. We assume that what we do is natural, i.e., inevitable and unalterable, but it is not.

Rousseau again:

You would have liked—and who would not have liked—the earthquake to have happened in the middle of some desert, rather than in Lisbon. Can we doubt that they also happen in deserts? But no one talks about those, because they have no ill effects for city gentlemen (the only men about whom anyone cares anything [that’s you, Monsieur Arouet!] ). For that matter, desert earthquakes have little effect on the animals and scattered savages who inhabit such spots—and who have no reason to fear falling roofs or tumbling buildings. What would such a privilege mean to us? Will we say that the order of the world must change to suit our whims, that nature must be subject to our laws, that in order to prevent an earthquake in a certain spot, all we have to do is build a city there?

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