In a recent essay published in the Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand newsletter, University of Canterbury Professor of Geography Eric Pawson asks why people are becoming more – not less – vulnerable to environmental disasters. Recent events, such as the recent Canterbury earthquakes, the Japan earthquake and tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Victorian bushfires of 2009 have brought this question to the fore. The primary reason for this increasing vulnerability has been our growing confidence in the human ability to control nature through engineering and other means, leading us to disregard the recurrent and inevitable threat posed by natural hazards.
Is it possible that the more we invest on defences and mitigation against natural events such as floods the costlier the human and economic losses become? Apparently, yes. The New Zealand environmental scientist Neil Ericksen showed as far back as the mid-1980s that the more that had been spent on river flood defences in New Zealand, the greater the extent of losses from floods over time. As defence costs rose, losses escalated, in a country where almost every town or city is flood prone. The reason is that local governments, developers and consumers assume that it is safe to occupy land once it is apparently protected by a flood defence scheme.
The essay goes on to ask what can be done to address this increased vulnerability. The first step, Professor Pawson suggests, is to cease referring to these events as “natural disasters”, “a term that does nothing to admit the role of human awareness or culpability”. Rather, history – both the recent human past and the deep geological past – demonstrates that these events are not unprecedented disasters, but “natural events”, which have been happening for as long as historical or geological time allows.
The essay contains many more fascinating insights into how we perceive “natural disasters” and the role that environmental history has to play in understanding them in their proper context – a highly recommended read! Natural Disasters and Natural Hazards in EHSANZ (pp.3-4). (Link takes you to a new page – click on document link to open it).
Photo top: a wave of water generated by the March 2011 Japanese earthquake hits the north-east coast of Japan. Right: Professor Eric Pawson.
See also: Nature strikes again – beautiful Tohoku’s coastal towns devastated by tsunami; Earthquake reveals the forgotten streams of Christchurch; Christchurch: a city haunted by its environmental past?
Also: We have still not lived long enough, by Tom Griffiths (2009)