Earthquakes. Tsunamis. Hurricanes. Floods. Tornadoes. Wildfires. Epidemics. What do all these things have in common? No, it isn’t, “Things I’m already sick of and it’s only April.” They’re all natural disasters with a knack for leaving death and mass destruction in their wake. Have you ever thought about what really makes a natural disaster, though?
Environmental engineer Ilan Kelman has, and he’s written a book about it called Disaster by Choice: How our Actions Turn Natural Hazards into Catastrophes. Hitting shelves May 1, 2020, Dr. Kelman will take his readers on a journey deep into natural disasters to explore what really defines them, how they’re unknowingly created by humans, and what — if anything — we can do to alleviate the damage and death tolls.
The high costs of bad choices
It’s clear after reading this book that both the root cause of and solution to natural disasters is humanity. Let’s call it like we see it: even if we’re not actively causing the disasters to happen, they’re happening because we are, well … existing in hazardous areas.
Disaster by Choice kind of reads to the tune of, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” A natural event becomes a disaster when it kills people and destroys their livelihoods, and if humans didn’t live where hazards occur, they wouldn’t be victims of natural disasters.
Though technically correct (the best kind of correct, right?), some might think it’s slightly offensive to word it that way. Well, sorry, but humans really are the worst. I mean, why park a huge city on top of a fault line? Why live somewhere that suffers from volcanoes? Kelman writes that we’re choosing to suffer from the hazards around us.
But wait, before joining me on the Bender “Bending” Rodriguez platform of “Kill all Humans,” people are also pretty great, and Kelman also explains how we can make the choice for better preparedness, proper management, more education and, in some cases, political revolution.
At the heart of Disaster is the understanding that the Earth is going to carry on doing what it does and it’s we who need to adapt. Humans must do our best as a species to anticipate the hazards, and to learn from them. For example, don’t build a home in a floodplain if you don’t have plans to deal with flooding.
Even if other humans made it possible to put your home there (or already did it for you), don’t get complacent. Levees can fail. Storms can be atypically brutal. Dams can burst. Simply being prepared can do wonders to save lives. Being aware of the hazards of your area and becoming educated on what to do when a threat arises are literal life-savers.
Choosing can be difficult
If it seems like Disaster by Choice suggests we’re all bringing the worst on ourselves, that isn’t always the case. We can only do so much as individuals, after all. It’s not always possible to plan around nefarious actors, or those who hold political power (who occasionally turn out to be nefarious actors, too, oddly enough). Quite often people find themselves in hazardous situations not because they chose to live in an area, but because they can’t get out of it. For whatever reason — medical, financial, situational, all of the above — they’re unable improve the circumstances surrounding them. This makes them vulnerable.
This introduces the reader to new sociological terminology, and explains how financial security, race, gender, social class, religious identity, sexuality, etc. play roles during times of natural disaster. There’s a lot of great discussion, but you need to understand the concept of vulnerability from the sociological point of view to really follow along.
It’s similar to the term “privilege,” in that the common term “vulnerable” is defined differently when talking about a population or a group of particular individuals. Vulnerability here is the degree to which a group can withstand, cope with, or resist stressors that arise from disasters.
For people in poor countries that rely on their allies for help, there’s often nobody listening. Exploitation has left nations like Haiti in ruins, leaving many there with few options on how or where they live. Unfortunately, even the help isn’t always that helpful, and may actually increase a country’s vulnerability. One need look no further than the U.S. response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico (part of the same country, even) to see this in action.
While Disaster by Choice isn’t about climate change, it’s inevitably addressed. Kelman thinks things are going to get tough before they improve. He says we need to be able to put our heads together as a as a planet and think, implying we all have to admit our political flaws and elect competent leaders who care about avoiding that loss of life and property. Which of course requires us to be able to put squabbles aside and do what’s best within our communities. Results on that vary.
Silver linings and such
Disaster by Choice: How our Actions Turn Natural Hazards into Catastrophes is a pretty good book about awful things, if you can stomach it during these chaotic times. It’s not all doom and gloom; it’s about hope, too. If we know what can happen, we can find ways to mitigate the risks while promoting survival — for ourselves, our community, our country, and our planet.
There are small steps we can take to initiate large changes, from complex things like renovating our homes to ensure they can withstand hazards and buying our neighbor a window unit to stay cool, to the very simple stuff like going to city council meetings or hitting the polls to vote.
With the current pandemic? Easy choices: Stay home. Wash your hands. Know the “how-to and do” for facemasks. Read books like Disaster by Choice by Dr. Ilan Kelman to gain perspective. You can even decide to read scientific research and discuss it with scientists and doctors. Donate to local needs. Mind your social distancing when you must go out.
I’ll say the main bit again; stay home and wash your dang hands! When we come to a point when we’re able to reflect, there will be things we can learn from this, too. We can be the change, we just have to make the choice.