Disasters We Can Prevent

Boston Globe

‘It’s very scary,” a Taunton resident told The New York Times last week. A precarious dam was stressed by a flooding river, and the town was vulnerable. ‘You start wondering, especially with all the natural disasters going on, what’s going on with this world?”

A good question. The people of Taunton know what it is to live downriver from a wall of water that just waits to be set loose, and in this season especially, they understand that it may happen. Rain and wind have traumatized whole regions, and, with the earthquake, the very earth has proven to be untrustworthy. In Pakistan, people are asking, If the ground underfoot is dangerous, what is safe? From Southeast Asia to Russia, poultry has become the thing to fear. Rarely has the contingency of life on this fragile planet been more palpable. Humans everywhere have a right to the feeling that what protects them is a tissue of hope, little more.

But in assessing our situation, we properly make distinctions between the vulnerability that arises from forces over which we have no control and the risk that results from choice. If a dam breaks with devastating effect because its disrepair made it unable to withstand the rising water, grief is compounded by anger. A disaster is ‘unnatural” if it could have been foreseen and prevented. In that case, it is urgent to establish accountability not just to right the wrong that took place, but to be sure the disaster does not happen again.

The world will never be harmless, but the world can be made to do less harm to its inhabitants. From the very origins of the human project in the far mists of time, its work has been to make that so. It is the business of the future to be dangerous, but, equally, it is the business of human beings to build a future that is safe.

That is why the recent cluster of tragedies, from nearby and far off, must be the occasion of more than regret and worry. Neither should ‘disaster fatigue” be allowed to dull the sense of urgency with which news of catastrophic suffering is normally received.

Absolute primacy belongs to the alleviation of such suffering, and when disaster strikes, nothing matters more than the rush to help. But help must be constructive and consistent. When it is not, every mistaken choice must be the occasion of criticism, learning, and reform. If dams (or levees) have been neglected ahead of time, and subsequently fail, those responsible must be challenged — for the sake of safer dams. If relief efforts after the fact are slow or inept, those responsible must be called to account. Deeper sources of carelessness or corruption are often exposed during disasters, and they must be confronted.

This work is called politics. It is not enough to pull victims out of harm’s way after the fact. Harm itself must be reduced, ahead of time. Taking reasonable measures to protect community members from foreseeable dangers, and moving quickly to help them when the unanticipated happens — these are functions that prompt communities to organize themselves in the first place. Disasters, that is, show us why we establish structures of public cooperation, also known as government. Disasters, therefore, always show us how those structures can be improved. This is true in the neighborhood — In Taunton, that dam will be repaired, and fast. It is true across the planet — Pakistan’s ongoing crisis shows how the international community must urgently sharpen its capacity to respond.

‘What’s going on with this world?” If something new is happening, it probably has less to do with the tragic occurrences that have befallen the human population this year, from the tsunami to Hurricane Wilma (although the quickened pace and ferocity of hurricanes seems a special warning), than with our recently acquired knowledge of the universal character of jeopardy. We used to speak of innovations in information flow as if they were only technical, but to have instantaneous knowledge of far off events is also to be vulnerable to them. If all politics is local, Tip O’Neill might be telling us today, all local politics is global now.

Avian flu makes the point. A disease that incubates among the world’s most impoverished people can threaten the most privileged. The melting permafrost makes the point, too. We humans are all downriver from the same coming flood. We need a new politics, one which reflects this unprecedented fact of our existence. No one is safe unless everyone is.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His most recent book is “Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War.”

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