Sendai’s biggest lesson? Worse disasters lie ahead…unless we act.

This past week, Joel Achenbach wrote an interesting article for the Washington Post entitled, Japan’s ‘black swan’: scientists ponder the unparalleled consequences of unlikely disasters.[1] Achenbach quoted Tom O’Rourke, a Cornell engineering professor, to the effect “People talk about the Big One. This is it.”

Taking the article or the quote out of context, some readers might have concluded that the Sendai disaster was about as big as we might ever expect to see. But chances are that wasn’t what either Achenbach or his source meant. They might equally well have said, “This is one of the biggest disasters so far…but it is most assuredly not the Big One. Even bigger upheavals lie in store.”

And that is society’s challenge. The simple fact is that with the passage of time, we’re experiencing calamities of growing reach. The economic losses, the casualties, and the geographical extent of catastrophes are increasing more rapidly than the growth of the world’s economies or other metrics of the human enterprise. And the pace seems to be accelerating. We can be forgiven for thinking these disasters are piling one atop the other before we can recover from the last.

Why is this happening?

Several factors come into play. Before turning to these, however, let’s give a brief nod to one that might seem relevant, but most probably is not. That would be some kind of sudden shift in the way that the (geophysical) Earth is working. Some such changes are most decidedly underway with respect to the intensity, duration, location, and track of atmospheric and oceanic hazards such as hurricanes and winter storms, and cycles of flood and drought. These events are increasingly influenced by the growing human footprint from place to place and on global scales. But even here, while we can expect to see connections in statistical patterns, when it comes to individual events – last year’s flooding in Pakistan, say, or the current drought in China – any human influence, if present, remains hidden. And when it comes to the recent volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, there’s no reason to be looking for a human cause. Eyjafallajokull, the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes, the Christchurch earthquake, and the Sendai-Tohoku earthquake and tsunami? We didn’t pull the trigger. We’re innocent!

[Whoa. We’re not guiltless when it comes to the impacts and consequences of those events, are we? Just the opposite! Almost all the fatalities and injuries, the property destruction, and the economic disruption, can be laid at our doorstep – all those decisions we made about where and how to build, how to lead our lives, structure our economies, generate our electricity, etc.]

So… if the Earth is not changing the way it does business, why do disasters pose a growing threat? The answer lies on this impacts side, and stems from social roots.

One reason? Our public policies, decisions, and actions to date with respect to hazards. Whether deliberately or accidentally, we have exchanged many, smaller, more localized disasters for fewer, larger, more extended ones. Take our century-or-longer habit of building levees to protect against small floods, and then allowing extensive building of populations and economic activity behind those levees. We greatly cut down on the year-on-year flooding at many floodplain locations – but made ourselves more vulnerable to those rarer floods that surmount the levees. Another case in point? The policies we pursued for many years to suppress any and all wildfire. This led to decades of fuel buildup (dead and decaying wood and brush) throughout our nation’s woodlands and forests. In consequence, whenever wildland fires do go out of control, they often find unprecedented amounts of stuff to burn.

But the far greater threat stems from a series of policies and decisions we make in other arenas. The decision to urbanize, for example. Cities make for a small target, so most tornadoes have been hitting rural areas. Damage is generally small. But when a tornado strikes Moore City, Oklahoma, or Atlanta, Georgia, losses spike.

Dependence on critical infrastructure (a feature of urbanization, and of modernization more generally) has a similar effect. One small example: the Midwest floods of 1993 and their impact on the city of Des Moines. The inundation was initially confined to floodplain adjacent to the Raccoon River, causing relatively little harm. But when the Raccoon floodwaters overtopped the city’s water treatment plant, the full population of 250,000 lacked drinking water. Or take our deregulation of the electrical utilities, and our move away from small, local utilities to highly interconnected regional power grids. This policy has reduced the cost of electricity to consumers, but has made us vulnerable to regional blackouts. 

Another cause? Globalized commerce, and zero-margin, no inventory, just-in-time manufacturing. Nearly two weeks following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, corporations worldwide are still sorting out the impacts and ripple effects on their supply chains.

Business leaders and politicians have worked together, for decades, to bring about such social change and technological advance. Economists, engineers, and scientists aided and abetted the decisions and the work. All of us did. We worked for these companies, or voted for the political leaders, and we have all enjoyed the prosperity that cities, critical infrastructure, and a global economy have provided. And rightly so! But now the unintended consequences of these decisions are showing up.

What can we do to cap future losses? Quite a bit, actually. More on that in the next post.

[1]The article title makes reference to the book by Nicholas Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable.

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