6, 90: Sauce

Charlie Loyd on how disasters are socially constructed:

Which disasters are counted as disasters? If you’ve subscribed for a while you may already be sick of this point, but it seems important to me. About 15 years ago, there was an event that killed roughly a thousand times as many people as these fires have. It wasn’t a war, and it wasn’t in a part of the world that you’ve never heard about. It was a natural diaster that killed more than 70,000 people in one of the richest, safest, most connected places. It was the 2003 European heat wave. The heat wave was certainly reported on, but mainly as a huge inconvenience – something like the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, which interrupted air travel – and less as a prodigiously lethal disaster. But it was. It killed four or five times more people than the terrible 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and over ten times more than have died in all California’s earthquakes and fires combined. Yet we don’t think of Europe as a borderline overambitious place for human lives to take root, a zone where nature rejects us, because it isn’t; it’s mostly very hospitable.

If natural versus human-caused disasters is a vertical distinction, some some scholars prefer to skip it and make only a horizontal distinction: natural hazards versus disasters. Disasters are never natural in the ordinary sense because they always could have been avoided or mitigated by human choices. Everything that we call a disaster started as a hazard: hazards themselves are only risks, not harms. Whether and how hazards become disasters is shaped by governmental, infrastructural, and economic choices, conscious or unconscious.

Thinking like this makes me a little less mad than the next person, maybe, at PG&E, the power company that’s accused of letting the fires start. According to various lawsuits, they maintained their cables and corridors poorly, and ran power when they shouldn’t have, and their sparks set off wildfires. If this is true, they should pay some recompence and do better next time. Okay. But wildfires will happen. You can’t prevent all ignition sources everywhere in the forests. Sooner or later a dry lightning strike, or friction as a tree falls, or a spark between two rocks in a landslide, or something else will set it off. And the longer it’s been since the last fire, the hotter and faster it’ll burn.

I hear people say with disgust that these smoky days are the new normal. But the forests burned every year, in vast areas, though in cooler, slower, individually smaller fires, up until the genocides of settlement. The nearly smokeless summers that my parents’ generation can talk about weren’t the system at equilibrium; they were already an effect of unsustainable imbalance. The oldest Californian never saw the kind of forest we’ll need. If we don’t want this kind of fire, the kind that kills whole families, and if we don’t want to cut down all the plants and be done with the unpredictability of nonhuman life, we’re still left with fires. Safer fires, but smoky fires.

There’s a more on this point in the linked piece than these excerpts can capture. I recommend subscribing to Loyd’s newsletter if you don’t already.

3:00 pm on November 25, 2018