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Disaster by choice: Our actions creating catastrophe

January 9, 2023
By Ilan Kelman

Professor and author Ilan Kelman explains why disasters are neither natural, nor sudden, unusual, or unpredictable.

Avalanches in the Southern Alps, New Zealand (2004). Photo by Ilan Kelman.

We’re at war with nature. Nature bats last. We’re fighting the natural world to stop natural disasters. Or so the rhetoric goes on and on.

Yet the environment does not exactly bear ill will toward us, so how could it be a humanity-versus-nature fight-to-the-death? Noting that, if we comprehensively defeat and destroy the planet, then we will not last long. What has really happened when we have to respond to an emergency because a hurricane ripped through Charlottetown or an earthquake razed Vancouver?

Sure, surviving the massive energies and forces behind explosive volcanism is not easy. We can, though, map volcanoes, assess their threats, and avoid places which might blow with little warning while training and planning for timely evacuation from other locations. Similarly, if we place a city on a low-lying coast, then we ought to be ready for a tsunami any time and for slow changes to sea level.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and other environmental phenomena and processes are perfectly typical. We should not be surprised when they occur, as they have done so for millennia. The real issue is whether or not we can cope with them without a disaster resulting.


Natural disasters?

To understand the causes of disasters, we must examine how society deals or cannot deal with these environmental phenomena and processes. This refers to vulnerability – of being vulnerable to something ­– in that people, infrastructure, and livelihoods become harmed by the environment. It could be poorly planned settlements, breaking building codes, lack of or poor communication of warnings, insurance not being affordable or accessible, or fearing assault or harassment during an evacuation or within a shelter.

Many other barriers created by society, not nature, forge difficulties in dealing with the environment around us, even when we know exactly what we should do and we want to do it. Nature does not bat last; it does not bat at all. Nature is not even playing a game. The game is from those who can choose to increase or decrease others’ vulnerabilities, whether deliberately or inadvertently. Actions range from bribing town councillors to approve housing on floodplains through to reducing government weapons spending in order to increase the education budget.

Geothermal vent at Hverarönd, Iceland (2001). Photo by Ilan Kelman.

Since we cannot blame nature for disasters, but the disaster results from society’s actions, we avoid the phrase “natural disaster”. They are just “disasters”.

As is often noted, earthquakes and tornadoes don’t kill people, although collapsing infrastructure does. The earthquake or tornado happens quickly. It occurs within the context of long-term, amorphous societal processes producing urban planning, building codes, and construction that permit structures to collapse and kill people. Simultaneously, people are denied education, political power, and opportunities to earn resources that would let them improve their own situation.

The baseline cause of the earthquake disaster is not the earthquake but the choices to construct infrastructure which cannot withstand an earthquake and to place people in that infrastructure.

Even a comet or asteroid, barrelling toward a cataclysmic strike on Earth which might threaten all of humanity, would not induce a natural disaster. We have some outer space monitoring networks and some readiness to deflect or destroy dangerous objects. We have a long way to go to safeguard fully the Earth, despite knowing what we should do and having enough money and technology available to do it. It is our choice to provide only some surveillance and response capability, rather than being absolutely certain that we could avert a major impact.

Back on Earth, people are frequently discriminated against or marginalized based on sex, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, race, disability, or other personal factors. These prejudices reduce their opportunities, options, and resources, so that they are less able to choose where they live, how they live, and what they do day-to-day and decade-to-decade. Their vulnerability increases, not because they deserve it and not because they are inherently more vulnerable. Instead, it happens because society makes them more vulnerable. The disaster is this creation and perpetuation of vulnerability.

Powerful choices

Was the 26 December 2004 tsunami disaster around the Indian Ocean sudden, unexpected, and unavoidable? Little scope existed for warning to save the 250,000 lives lost, we are told, because nature unleashed its ruinous power, against which we are helpless.

Pacific tsunami warnings started in 1949. International co-ordination around the Pacific began in 1960, leading to efforts in the 1970s to create a similar system for the Indian Ocean. Previous trans-oceanic tsunamis were well-known and some schools taught their children about how to recognize and respond to tsunami signs.

Nevertheless, an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system was always too expensive, other priorities always superseded it, and it inevitably seemed as if we did not really need it. Until it was too late. The current Indian Ocean tsunami warning system started operating just 18 months after the 2004 catastrophe. Now problems emerge from lack of maintenance, indicating again choices about priorities.

Similarly, Hurricane Harvey flooding Houston in 2017 should not have been a surprise given the city’s previous storm experiences, including Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. Hurricane Harvey did dump enormous amounts of rainfall on inhabited areas, yet the disaster was neither the hurricane nor the precipitation. The disaster was choices forming and retaining vulnerabilities.

Houston’s fossil fuel-based economy encouraged development across the city’s floodplains, increasing runoff rather than absorption of rainwater, even while green space initiatives were beginning. Systemic marginalization and inequities meant that the poorest people experienced the worst impacts, as is usual in disasters, no matter what nature does.

Reducing vulnerability

The Earth continually provides weather, tectonic activity, and much more, giving us little choice except to deal with it. We build and live in burnable ecosystems without considering fires and on unstable slopes without considering landslides. We could recognize the possible dangers and avert them before they manifest, while reaping the rewards of living in those locales. We especially must remain alert to how we can help those less able to help themselves.

From Australia’s 2020 bushfires to Pakistan’s 2022 floods, those who suffer the most tend to have the fewest options to counter their vulnerability, which was created by others. It requires a long time to build these settlements and societies, meaning that it requires a long time to make the vulnerabilities that cause the disaster.

Consequently, all disasters occur slowly. Even though the emergency seems to loom suddenly, fast-onset disasters are as imaginary as natural disasters. Some environmental events materialize rapidly, such as squalls and rockfalls. Other processes ramp up and fade out slowly, such as droughts and El Niño.

No matter what the environment does, the disaster results from humanity’s decisions, attitudes, values, behaviour, and activities over the long-term.

Since this disaster process takes a long time to build up, disasters are not extreme, unusual, or unpredictable events originating in nature. They are the common, everyday, often unadmitted vulnerable conditions in which we all live and are often powerless to stop. Fundamentally, disasters are not events.

Rather than blaming people who suffer in disasters, those who have power can focus on reducing everyone’s vulnerabilities – which, in turn, helps ourselves to avoid catastrophe. By accepting that disasters are not natural, but are caused by us, we can steer away from disastrous choices.

Ilan Kelman (Twitter/Instagram @ILANKELMAN) is a professor of disasters and health at University College London, UK and professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. He is the author of Disaster by Choice.

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