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Natural Disasters and the American Way

Question: Why are natural disasters in the United States (and Western Civilization as a whole) rarely as deadly as comparable disasters in other parts of the world?

Answer: It's complicated. Phil pointed out that we shouldn't discount good luck in all this.

Phil:

Geography plays a role. We have nasty (often deadly) weather in the US, but nothing like the tsunami or the typhoons that hit Bangladesh every few years and wipe out several thousand people at once. Even Mt. St. Helens didn't rack up much of a death toll. We've drawn a pretty good hand geographically, except for one kind of natural disaster where I believe we lead the world. Tornadoes.

Certainly my state got lucky with Hurricane Katrina yesterday. New Orleans may not be so fortunate in the future, but the city is thankful today. Still, disaster after disaster, other parts of the world experience greater loss in life and property than the Western World.

I think the answer can be found in technology, wealth, and the Enlightenment tradition.

TECHNOLOGY:

Hurricane Katrina developed very quickly and very close to the American coastline - in the Bahamas rather than off the coast of Africa. Yet Florida was given sufficient warning to prepare for the storm. New Orleans, Biloxi and other areas that were being torn up yesterday had several more days to prepare and evacuate. We can credit our meteorological tools and infrastructure for the warning.

This is not meant to be triumphant. It's still too early to know what the final death toll of this storm and the final cost of repair. But it's not too early to say that the Federal and various State efforts to prepare and evacuate went remarkably well. We have no idea how many lives were saved, but surely more than a few.


WEALTH:

Wealth is another crucial element. It costs money to evacuate a city the size of New Orleans (80% of the population left town, most of the rest went to shelters). Money had to be found to do this. Most evacuations were funded privately. People gassed up their privately owned autos and headed north. Whatever the source, money was found and spent to accomplish the task.


ENLIGHTENMENT TRADITION:

It was John Locke who first wrote about the right to "life, liberty, and property." These ideas were more fully developed in the Declaration of Independence.

In short, a primary responsibility of government is to protect the lives of the governed. When the protection of the sovereignty of the individual (and the individual's rights to life, liberty, and property) form the rationale for the existence of government, that society places a high value on human life.


DISASTERS ELSEWHERE:

It would be unfair to directly compare the Katrina hurricane evacuation with last year's Tsunami disaster. The Tsunami that ravaged Southeast Asia allowed very little time to prepare. There obviously is much more time to get out of the way of hurricanes.

But the Tsunami was more deadly than it had to be. The problem is that Southeast Asia lacks (comparatively speaking) the technology, wealth, and the enlightenment tradition of the West.

The early warning technology that could have given the Southeast Asian coastal areas a few hours warning was not in place though it was readily available. Had the warning system been in place, the means to mass communicate that warning was not in place. And even if the entire population could have been warned, it is not evident that a majority of the population had the means to quickly evacuate. Lastly, the infrastructure, wealth, and/or will was not there to mount the kind of search and rescue operation after the disaster that surely would have been undertaken in the United States.

I hope I've not come across as jingoistic. Few people alive today can take much credit for the cycle of prosperity that seems to always protect America. I'm hardly the first to notice. 19th century Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck said, "There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America." That's hardly a complement.

The cycle of prosperity is mutually strengthening. Wealth and the freedom that Enlightenment philosophy demands produces technology. And the same Enlightenment philosophy that recognized that some rights are inseparable from human nature also recognized that nature itself was something that man should strive to understand and harness for his own purposes.

In this, the Enlightenment tradition also found support in some aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition - specifically those passages of the Bible where God granted Man dominion over the earth.

Elsewhere in the world you might find fatalism around harsh circumstances, natural or man-made. In the US (and possibly elsewhere in the West or in the Anglosphere) there is the assumption that problems have solutions and that we can and must contend with any threat.

Quick example: Had an enlightenment philosopher heard the lyrics to "Colors of the Wind" he would have laughed.

How high does the sycamore grow?
If you cut it down, then you’ll never know

Yes, but think of the house we could build with that wood! Surely we can answer the burning question of sycamore height with a control group while we harvest these other trees over here.

When technology leads to wealth, it reinforces our tendency to enlightenment values through raised expectations. Wealth, technology, and enlightenment values all reinforce one another, but take any of these three legs away and the stool falls.

Without our great wealth life would be harder, and ultimately expectations would be lowered. If a disaster occurred and the government failed to act...well, life's expected to be hard.

Life Extension activists argue that a big obstacle to the development of life extension is the acceptance of death as normal. Death is tragic but, tragically, it's "normal." Likewise, if American society were to experience a lengthy economic depression, we would all slowly come to accept a new "normal" inferior to the "normal" we have today.

And that would be a tragedy. Western Civilization is envied and often despised throughout the world. We're sometimes called imperialists, or colonialists, or infidel, or unsophisticated cowboys. But our success in handling natural disasters and other challenges can be (and is being) emulated elsewhere. Humanity is better off in all circumstances when expectations are raised.

UPDATE: As damage assessments roll in it is becoming harder to stand by the thought that New Orleans "got lucky." It appears now that 80% of the below sea-level portions of New Orleans is now flooded with more water coming in all the time from breeched levees.

The governor has order that the city be completely evacuated and it appears that it may be a month or more before people will be allowed back. The number of homeless exceeds a million.

The efforts made both before the storm to evacuate the city and now are heroic and unprecedented, but so is the damage.

Comments

Stephen, overall I think this is a great post and deals with the topic quite well. Sadly, all too many people today discount, or even disparage, the very things you are pointing out. At the same time they demand that we do ever more to help those afflicted by natural or manmade disaster, not recognizing that the very things they hate and distrust so are what enables this country to prevail in the face of disasters.

I do have one quibble though. You said:

Likewise, if American society were to experience a lengthy economic depression, we would all slowly come to accept a new "normal" inferior to the "normal" we have today.

I'd say the Great Depression qualifies as a lengthy economic depression and the American people did not "accept a new normal". In fact the Depression and World War II were clearly the catalysts to create the "Greatest Generation", which rejected the notion that the privation, hardship and economic failure of 1929 to 1945 was the norm. I think that it is more likely, I hope, that hardship would once again bring out the best in the American people. Perhaps I'm wrong, but our historical tradition seems to support my view.

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