There is no such thing as a natural disaster. This is the provocative statement that Professor of Disasters and Health Ilan Kelman makes with Disaster by Choice. The title pretty much sums it up: Earth can be a violent place alright, but our actions, or lack thereof, turn these hazards into catastrophes that cause unnecessary death, damage, and destruction. So, what are we to do?
The book opens vividly with the 2010 Haiti earthquake that tore asunder the island and turned into a poorly managed humanitarian crisis when UN troops accidentally introduced a cholera epidemic (which is a bacterial infection, not a viral one, as Kelman writes here). Geologist Robert Yeats had called Haiti’s capital an example of an “earthquake time bomb” a week before disaster struck, and the city is just one of many catastrophes waiting to happen. Of all the natural disasters discussed in this book, earthquakes feel the most menacing to me, as they really strike out of nowhere. We know which areas are at risk, but despite decades of research, predicting them is still virtually impossible.
Kelman proceeds with examples of recent wildfires in Australia and the North Sea flood of 1953 to drive home his point that we make ourselves vulnerable to disasters. This leads into what I thought were two somewhat muddled chapters on vulnerability.
“Earth can be a violent place alright, but our actions, or lack thereof, turn these hazards into catastrophes that cause unnecessary death, damage, and destruction.”
The first of these starts by stating it cannot meet the challenge of documenting how vulnerability is created and perpetuated, but then takes a stab at it anyway. As such, this chapter asks how vulnerability to natural hazards is influenced by population number (it is, but the proportion of a population affected is also important), age (old people are at risk, but so are young people who are often overconfident), ideology (only vaguely defined, but Kelman points to e.g. voting behaviour that does not address social and economic disparities), sex (in some countries women are more vulnerable to floods as they receive no swimming lessons), and economics (poverty does not help, but affluent people also often choose to live in places prone to natural hazards). Oh, and there is mention of city layout and planning, building design, and building codes in here too.
The chapter that follows, which teases with the subtitle “Vulnerability by choice, but whose choice?”, continues in this vein. A strong start on the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak asks pointed questions as to why this epidemic was not suppressed quicker. Epidemics and pandemics are other examples of disasters of our own making. Quammen also made this point in Spillover: our encroachment on, and destruction of natural habitat exposes us to new diseases that can jump from animals to humans. But after that, I feel Kelman gets side-tracked in discussions on how migration and travelling increase vulnerability when people are unaware of local natural hazards, and how institutional choices on warning systems and shelter design can leave certain disabled groups particularly vulnerable.
“Why do so many people live in dangerous areas? For many people, it is actually a lack of choice.”
As Kelman mentions, these are all “essential pieces of the disaster jigsaw”, but he unfortunately does not really assemble them. And that is a shame, as I feel Kelman makes some excellent points of which I will highlight three.
One, why do so many people live in dangerous areas? For many people, it is actually a lack of choice. Poverty, institutional neglect, and, in many third-world countries, a long history of colonial exploitation all feed into this.
Two, writes Kelman, politics and power games often create and perpetuate systems that make people vulnerable to natural hazards. Those in power often have little interest in opposing e.g. lucrative property development in flood-prone areas or spending money to retrofit existing buildings to make them safer from wildfires or heatwaves.
And three, where money is spent, it is often not spent wisely. We tend to focus on reducing the hazard rather than reducing people’s vulnerability. Kelman makes this point by talking of the rather obscure area of earthquake modification, the pie-in-the-sky idea of trying to control tectonic shifts (reducing the hazard), rather than focusing on constructing earthquake-proof infrastructure (reducing the vulnerability). I feel his example of how we deal with floods would have been better here. To wit, we often build expensive defences that need continuous maintenance (reducing the hazard), whereas we should construct houses that can handle a flood or avoid such areas altogether (reducing the vulnerability).
“Where money is spent, it is often not spent wisely. We tend to focus on reducing the hazard rather than reducing people’s vulnerability.”
These strong points are offset by what I feel are some shortcomings. When I first read of this book, I thought “isn’t it simply a matter of more of us being in harm’s way as our population has grown?” Disaster by Choice is surprisingly thin on numbers and statistics, with Kelman relying mostly on anecdotal examples and theorising. The list of notes takes up a mere four pages, and the further reading list is just half a page. Surely, there is more known about the number of victims and economic damage over time?
Climate change also only gets a brief mention. Some have controversially argued that climate change does not increase disasters after everything else has been accounted for, whereas others think it does (e.g. the mass movements of water and melting of ice bringing about increased tectonic activity, see McGuire’s Waking the Giant). Kelman seems to side with the latter school of thought, though I was surprised to see no mention of McGuire’s ideas, especially as he wrote a glowing recommendation printed on the book’s dustjacket.
Furthermore, Kelman only briefly mentions human psychology on page 128, writing how for many the threat of natural hazards is far removed from day-to-day concerns. How effective are emergency drills and government advice about preparedness in the face of this? What is the right balance between complacency and doomsday-prepper-madness?
“Kelman only briefly mentions human psychology […] what is the right balance between complacency and doomsday-prepper-madness?”
Finally, he writes, it is ludicrous to claim that preparing for disasters is too expensive – just look at the world’s annual military budget. Clearly, many governments look at this trade-off between costs and benefits differently. But more importantly, what would Kelman have us do with that money? Examples of solutions are scattered throughout the book. These include personal choices (awareness and preparedness), education (should first-aid and basic rescue skills be part of our school curricula?), infrastructure (engineering hacks to make buildings better able to withstand fire, floods, or earthquakes), and urban layout (which can help or hinder mass evacuations). A final chapter bringing them together, reflecting on their cost-effectiveness, would have been welcome.
Although I personally thought the book was somewhat lacking in structure, Kelman is to be praised for boldly writing what many do not want to hear. At just over 150 pages, it is an easy, quick, but foremost thought-provoking read.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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