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Blame: natural vs. human-caused disasters

When calamity strikes, who’s to blame? The line between natural and human-caused disasters is becoming more and more vague according to Eugene A. Rosa, Edward R. Meyer Professor of Natural Resource and Environmental Policy and professor of sociology at Washington State University.

Rosa will discuss the differences and commonalities between natural and human-caused disasters at the last seminar in the Honors Program spring series at Washington State University Vancouver. The seminar is scheduled to begin 7p.m. Thursday, April 13, in the Multimedia Classroom Building, room 6.

In the 19th century, agencies like insurance companies prompted creation of the legal category, acts of God, to avoid responsibility, Rosa explained. The problem now is that the causes of many natural disasters are not exclusively acts of God. Human decision-making and technological fixes are important ingredients.

Rosa cited the results of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans as an example.  Due to human decisions, like zoning, discrimination and relevant city regulations, some parts of the city, like the Ninth Ward where the poorest people lived, were built in risky locations. Those were the areas where Katrina-caused flooding and property damage was the most extreme.

Continuing that analysis, Rosa explains that hurricanes are becoming more intense and more frequent, possibly due to the impacts of global warming.

“Hurricane Katrina was not as much an act of God as it was actually driven by choices and technological solutions – human actions,” he said.  “So, we are doing it. This act of God is an act of humans as well.”

Technological disasters, like the Chernobyl nuclear accident, are clearly acts of humans, but their impact is similar to an act of God.

One lesson Rosa draws from that analysis is that the line between human-caused and natural disasters is blurring. 

“While untoward events originating in nature put us at unavoidable risk, disasters are largely the result of human agency, choices that make us more vulnerable when those risks are realized.  Local builders and politicians increase that vulnerability with the housing developments they locate in floodplains or on earthquake faults, as does the federal government in building higher levees and floodwalls and offering flood insurance,” Rosa noted.

To heighten the problem, he added, the risk for future disasters is increasing.

“Very soon the majority of the world’s population will, for the first time in history, live in cities,” Rosa noted. “That urbanization raises human vulnerability, especially from earthquake risks, as well as meteorological and hydrological risks that are highest in coastal areas.”

The issues of risk and responsibility are considerations that need to be addressed by our society, Rosa said. By asking the right questions, we may discover new ways to manage risks, he added hopefully.

“We need to understand that natural disasters are a normal feature of society, that natural disasters are seldom entirely ‘natural,’ that technology is not just the solution but part of the problem, that the assessment of technological systems begs for sociological analysis, and that natural disasters provide the occasion to refresh our understanding of the structure of society (especially its obdurate inequities) as well as the modern dependency on pervasive technologies.”

Rosa continued with this serious concern: “The increased intensity, if not frequency, of disasters may be warning us that the reach of human agency, imbued with a deep belief in technological fix, exceeds our grasp. It raises the further question of whether the sin of Classical Greece, hubris, is upon us — not in the way envisioned then, in individual mortals, but in the products of our agency, in complex systems and technologies vested with the hubris of our exaggerated expectations.”

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