Unalienable human rights… for people living on an angry planet

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…    (text from the Declaration of Independence)

Thursday’s news headlines tell us that flooding from tropical storms Manuel and Ingrid is dealing death and destruction on both Mexico coasts; the combined death toll stands at nearly 100 so far and is climbing. The twin events, on the heels of last week’s flooding along the U.S. front range of the Rockies, reminds us that our planet does its business through extremes. Nature’s violent power is not the exception on Earth but a way of life.

On that count, then, oppressive governments (whether 18th-century Britain or 21st century Syria or North Korea) are not the only threats to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

What might affirmation of these three basic human rights look like in the face of natural hazards? Here are some tentative ideas, for you to improve upon.

Life. Let’s accept, as Gilbert White and other hazards experts have suggested over the years, that extremes are nature’s way of doing business, but disasters are largely a human construct (the result of poor land use, deficient engineering, poverty, …). Let’s concede that the threat to life cannot be eliminated, but only ameliorated. Maybe the right to life translates to:

The right to a warning. All hazards have precursors that precede their development or arrival. We’ve made more progress on identifying and routinely detecting and predicting some of these (weather, floods, etc.) than others (e.g., earthquakes). But even with respect to earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, and the like, we’ve made some initial advances that hold potential for improvement. And climatology and earthquake zonation provide other information that alerts us to risk and vulnerability. There remains the problem of getting that warning in a timely manner to those in harm’s way. But the emergence of IT and smartphone technology over the past two decades offer the potential to put understandable, actionable warnings in the hands of nearly everyone at risk in a timely manner. Technological challenges and a bit of social science (risk communication) remain. However, it’s not enough that you and I get timely warnings of hazard; there must be actions we can then take to protect ourselves. Which brings us to:

The right to a safe home (or workplace, or hospital, or school or… ). Home ought to be the safest place to be. At some level, we all ought to be able to shelter-in-place, rather than evacuate. That starts with land use: minimizing the numbers of homes built in floodplains and coastal areas, or on fault zones, or unstable hillsides. It means building codes taking into account the local hazards, and construction conforming to rather than violating those codes. It means safe rooms or shelters in tornado alley.

Liberty. To some these restrictions, especially land use, infringe on individual liberty. Point taken. But in today’s connected society, interdependence and independence are necessarily intertwined. Liberty operates in a context. We’re not free to own a gun and fire it in any direction and at any time and place of our choosing (though some, it seems, might wish it so). We’re not free to pollute the environment in any way we might desire. In the same way, we shouldn’t be free to obligate our neighbors to assume unwanted additional hazard exposure just to allow our own risky behavior. The Association of State Floodplain Managers and its No Adverse Impact policy speak to this. ASFPM stands against the practice of building levees to protect a town or city while exporting the flood risk to other cities and towns downstream without the latter having a say. In the same way, if we deliberately build or live at risk we shouldn’t force the American taxpayer to pick up the tab for our property loss, or emergency responders to put their lives on the line to rescue us from the consequences of our thoughtless behavior.  And so on. Thus we have:

The right to responsible liberty, without having that right jeopardized by other’s failure to act responsibly.

The pursuit of happiness. In today’s world, pursuit of happiness translates into the right not just to life, but to a life worth living. A job to return to after the hazard has come and gone. The continuity of critical infrastructure that we depend upon in today’s world – the roads, the power grid, the water supply, the communications, the sewage disposal, the schools, hospitals, and financial systems that keep us all productive. That’s where government comes in.

…to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…  Government’s job includes building community-level resilience to hazards: making the investments in Earth observations, science, and services needed for hazard warnings, fostering appropriate land use and safe building codes, working with the private sector to ensure that critical infrastructure remains functional even under stress…

… not mimicking the chaos and suffering of a natural disaster by willfully triggering government shutdowns in response to contrived fiscal crisis.

Are such powers just? When did we, the governed, consent? Might we not aspire to do better?

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One Response to Unalienable human rights… for people living on an angry planet

  1. Bill:-

    As always, an excellent post. It reminds me of the excellent line from Ernie Broussard in Louisiana about disasters: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

    When we speak of the role of government, too often we think in terms of what the federal government does or should do. But the gridlock in DC has had an important side effect: our cities and states have become the true laboratories of our democracy, sometimes stumbling, but often finding opportunities amidst their crises. Before Obamacare, Massachusetts found a way to provide nearly universal health care insurance. In Florida, Craig Fugate was implementing “Whole Community” approaches to emergency response and recovery long before DHS and FEMA caught on. Charlotte; Augusta, GA; and many other cities have taken innovative steps to improve – not just manage – their flood plains.

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