That’s not completely true, of course, and in the aftermath of the triple-barreled horrors in Japan — earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown — it might even seem callous to suggest otherwise, as the title of this post does. Surely the first two of these are natural disasters in the purest sense.
But calling something a “natural disaster,” while a humbling reminder of the fact that, as one seismologist said, “nature always bats last,” sometimes gets in the way of looking into the deep questions that make such disasters more or less catastrophic. Indeed, Andrew Sullivan wrote:
Readers have asked why we haven’t covered this event exhaustively. My answer is that this is a natural disaster, unlike, say, a revolution or a war, which requires little added comment.
I couldn’t disagree more. Consider:
Hurricane Katrina was barely one when it reached New Orleans — the big story there was the ineptitude of the Army Corps of Engineers, local, state, and federal politicians and bureaucrats, and the ham-handed efforts by the Department of Homeland Security (forced into a public health role for which it had little appetite and less competence, as dramatized so chillingly in Zeitoun).
The earthquake that decimated Haiti was, in its effect, far worse than the one that hit Japan, even though the magnitude of the first — 7.0 — was far less than the 8.9 (or is it 9.0?) of the more recent one.What’s the difference between 7.0 and 9.0? Here’s a quick Richter scale refresher:
[E]ach step on the Richter scale is 10 times greater than the one before it. An earthquake that measures 8.0 is ten times stronger than one that measures 7.0, and an earthquake that measures 9.0 is one hundred times stronger than one that measures 7.0. So Friday’s earthquake in Japan was almost 100 times stronger than the one in Haiti in 2010.
So why was the less powerful natural disaster more consequential than the much stronger one? Largely because of the vast differences in infrastructure and public health preparedness between the two island nations. It’s by now a commonplace of public health doctrine that any naturally occurring, negative incident — say, infectious disease or (let’s use the term here) natural disaster — will have far worse consequences for the poor than for the rich. And while Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Japan remains one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. So the Haitian government estimated 230,000 dead (others guessed fewer, but all agree that the number exceeded 100,000), while the Japanese devastation, though too early to quantify yet, will almost surely be much lower. (As I write this, 20,000 is the new “best guess.”) So the earthquake about 100 times stronger (in Japan) will likely end up causing the deaths of about one-tenth as many people as the weaker one (in Haiti). Please don’t think I mean to minimize any of this. I’m trying to make a point, and I can barely stand to watch these images.
There’s plenty more to do, and to say, than to simply gawk at the horror and tally the dead. There are questions of constructing buildings to withstand earthquakes (and boy, did Japan do a good job there — not even one of the strongest quakes in recorded history caused a single skyscraper to topple; again, compare Haiti), personal preparedness for disaster (and the interesting psychological questions relating to why we don’t prepare for low-frequency, but high-impact events), and, inevitably, the safety of the nuclear power industry.
In its way, a natural disaster causes us to think about, report on, and try to fix just as many things as does a revolution; just in a different way. And it’s a mistake to think that one raises more complex questions that the other. There are simply two very different kinds of entropy to be dealt with.