The Disaster Roulette.

2011 is shaping up to be a most unhappy year. The seemingly endless parade of human misery caused by the three C’s–calamity, catastrophe and chaos– got me to thinking about which is “worse:” human-caused or natural disasters?

The answer lies in the response. In natural disasters the majority of people band together to work together for the common purpose of overcoming individual and collective hardship and tragedy in pursuit of the common goal of re-establishing normality to the lives. The solidarity exhibited during such times is born of the realisation that nature is a force that cannot be controlled and that no blame can be attributed to it or anything else. It just is, and we live at its mercy. If societies are to thrive, the only response to natural disasters has to be social union and commonality of purpose.

Human disasters, on the other hand, tend to bring out the worst in people. In fact, they are often the product of and the motivation for human cruelty, opportunism and greed. Unlike natural disasters, which are indiscriminate in application, human disasters are discriminate and often deliberate (because even negligence affects some more than others given socio-economic, political and cultural demographics). War and genocide are extreme expressions of human disaster, but the reach of malfeasance is vast and wide. Think of the looting that followed the Iraq occupation or pro-democracy protests in Cairo. Or the cynical use of false information supplied to ISAF forces to settle personal vendettas in Afghanistan. Or the wave of drug-related murders in Mexico (over 35,000 in the last five years) that rides on the back of poverty, ignorance and an unwillingness by consuming societies to recognise the demand aspect of the equation. The same willful blindness and self-serving logics applies to human sex trafficking in SE Asia, which leaves a terrible toll of human and social costs in its wake but which is allowed, even encouraged, by states simply because it channels sexual predation to foreign localised areas (such as Thailand, which is the recipient of well-advertised sex tours from countries such as Japan and Germany). Then there are the corporate disasters ranging from the tobacco industry’s lying about the effects of smoking to lax safety regulations at chemical plants in places like Bophal to the manipulation of financial derivatives by bankers that produced the global financial crisis of 2008-present and which exacted a terrible toll in lost jobs, lost homes and, in some countries, lost public benefits imposed by austerity measures prescribed by the very people who caused the crisis in the first place.

If my view is correct then the answer is clear: human disasters are “worse” than natural disasters.

But there is another scenario that brings the worst of both together: where human folly has magnified the impact of a negative natural event. That may be the case in Japan. If it turns out that concerns about nuclear safety standards were ignored or covered up by power company operators in the years before this year’s earthquake and tsunami, and/or that they are currently downplaying the gravity of the situation in an effort to save face, then the current nuclear crisis is a human add-on to what otherwise is a terrible but surmountable natural disaster. The same is true if it turns out that the supposedly “earthquake-proof” buildings in countries with known fault lines have not been built to code due to corruption or cost-cutting (this is especially true for states located with the Ring of Fire earthquake zone and Central Asia where such standards, if they exist, are haphazardly enforced). I use these two examples because they are in the news at present, but the list of instances where human failures worsened the negative impact of a natural event is long. As for the bible-bashers who place blame on victimised societies because of their supposed failures to adhere to God’s teachings: the less said the better, but they too add unnecessary suffering to those already in distress.

In sum, it seems to me that natural disasters are tragedies for which humanity is socially hard-wried to cope. Human disasters are worse because they promote self-centred advantage-taking, meanness and division rather than solidarity and unity. Human and natural disasters combined are the most calamitous of all because the presence of the former compounds and exacerbates the problem while making more difficult a common response to the latter.

All of which is to say, if I have to spin the disaster wheel given where I live, I bet on natural causes and prepare accordingly (easier to do in NZ than in SG, which is another reason to return home). However, should I ever again live in a conflict zone or where corporate and/or political corruption abounds (and that could well be most of the world), then I will hedge my bets with a human disaster contingency plan as well.

10 thoughts on “The Disaster Roulette.

  1. Hamish

    This wasn’t the blog I was expecting next from you. To be perfectly honest I had never actually considered the issue of Human v Natural disasters. I had been expecting a blog on the Libyan situation from you hoping you would either validate my thoughts or point out my errors.

    I noticed the other day that New Zealand had attracted the attention of the Femen in the Ukraine ( A female protest group who undress to make the point that the Ukraine is not a brothel ) over a, to be blunt puerile competition run by a NZ radio station. This blog has made me reconsider my position on that competition. It will probably make me reconsider a few other things as well as I reflect on it further. Thanks.

  2. Pablo Post author


    I have refrained from ME-specific themes for the moment because I wrote a fair bit about them last month and most of what I said has been validated. I did leave a comment on the matter over at kiwiblog (in response to a post titled “Gulf War 3”) that addresses some specific issues involved in the UN decision to invoke a no fly zone over the country.

    This post is just a more general reflection of the current state of global affairs.

  3. Hugh

    If we look at the past 100 years the death toll for human disasters massively exceeds the death toll for natural disasters. If we make even a conservative assessment of the contribution poverty lends to natural disasters then it’s not even close.

    That pretty much closes the issue for me.

  4. Bruce Hamilton

    If we look at the past 100 years the death toll for human disasters massively exceeds the death toll for natural disasters.

    Assuming natural disasters include epidemics, one natural disaster alone ( Spanish Flu ) killed between 3 and 5% of the global population ( around 1.8 billion ) and affected around 25% of the population. That’s 50 – 100 million dead, so what ” massively exceeds ” such events?.

  5. Hugh

    Bruce, I meant the total death toll of natural vs human, not that every individual natural disaster could be topped by an individual human disaster. But the upper estimates of WW2’s casualty count are a good 75 million, which is comparable.

  6. Bruce Hamilton

    Bruce, I meant the total death toll of natural vs human, not that every individual natural disaster could be topped by an individual human disaster.

    I accept that, so I chose one specific example in time. The greatest recent natural disaster ( smallpox, 300 million deaths since 1900 ), is something that humanity has almost completely eradicated.

    Humanity’s efforts at extermination don’t “massively exceed” nature, especially when Smallpox’s fellow travellers, such as Measles, Malaria, and TB are included.

  7. tochigi

    i cannot begin to imagine how one would categorise the Spanish Flu epidemic as a “natural disaster”. First World War was a human disaster, directly leading to the epidemic. and for that matter, most major epidemics are human disasters.

  8. Hugh

    Bruce, to me a disease whose effects are ongoing but don’t spike in an epidemic or pandemic doesn’t really count as a “disaster”. If you count all diseases as natural disasters, then yes, they far outweigh human disasters. But as tochigi points out many disease-related deaths are preventable and caused by poverty, which is a product of human agency.

  9. Bruce Hamilton

    Bruce, to me a disease whose effects are ongoing but don’t spike in an epidemic or pandemic doesn’t really count as a “disaster”.

    Your call, others differ, eg one Wikipedia entry, that topped my Google search…

    There are people who consider all disasters involving human deaths can be construed as a consequence of human actions, as some other Wikipedia disaster entries will probably demonstrate.

    Initiating a deliberate action that usually harms many others is not natural, but an unfortunately common human-caused disaster.

    To me, it’s more about intent, as many natural disasters can be unintended/unwanted consequences – choosing to live on the ring of fire, near a volcano, associating with people who may be ill, etc etc. The hazard obviously existed, but a personal risk assessment decided it was acceptable.

    Natural agents that kill after a population’s exposure to the hazard have wiped out far more humanity than other humans. If those events don’t fit your definition of a disaster, that’s fine.

    Sorry to have diverted the thread…

  10. Hugh

    Bruce, wikipedia may be a good source for statistics but when it comes to definitions of words like “disaster” or “revolution”, I don’t consider it authoritative. If your definition of “natural disaster” basically includes every death not directly attributable to human agency, then yes, you’re correct, but you’re also interpreting Pablo’s initial question in such a way as to make it absurd to ask.

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