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Disaster by Choice: How our actions turn natural hazards into catastrophes

KelmanI am typing this review in the aftermath of property-damaging floods in the UK and life-taking wildfires in Australia, and during the Covid-19 pandemic. Floods, fires and viruses are just three of a panoply of natural hazards that includes earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and many others. The thing that makes a natural hazard a disaster is when it impacts on human populations, taking assets or (worse yet) lives.

Disasters arise from a lack of preparedness, which may result from individual actions or a lack of political will. In this timely book, Ilan provides numerous examples of both disasters and disaster aversion. Only a very few can be summarised here.

In a story that resonates with the moorland fires in England, three people in July 2016 chose to camp in the woodlands around Nederland, Colorado, and did not properly extinguish their barbeque. One day later a wildfire lit up the forest in the Cold Springs Fire, which killed numerous animals, forced 2000 people to evacuate, and destroyed eight homes. The trio were arrested and tried. Their sentence allows them to work during the day, returning to prison at night. It will take them the remainder of their lives to pay for the damages awarded against them. However, eight houses within the burnt area were participating in the Wildfire Partners programme of mitigation measures. These survived.

While affluent people may face damage due to the appeal of living at unsuitable sites, such as in woodland or on beachfronts, economically disadvantaged people may find themselves moving to unsuitable sites, such as floodplains or the flanks of volcanoes, out of economic necessity. Some disabled people might face something as simple as the lack of a ramp leading to a tornado shelter.

The main message of this book is that disasters are not natural.  Societies and humanity choose to create them. We can also, with insight, economic resources and political will, choose to prevent them. The tornado, tsunamic or earthquake are not to blame. Disasters arise when we fail to build suitable housing capable of withstanding 400 kph winds, fail to shun places subject to lava flows or tsunamis, or do not create a culture of warning and safe shelter for all – including for those with disabilities. Disasters for all, whether affluent or poor, able or disabled, are caused by vulnerabilities, not hazards. I hope that this book is widely read and its message heeded. 

By Brent Wilson

Disaster by Choice: How Our Actions Turn Natural Hazards into Catastrophes by Ilan Kelman, 2020. Published by Oxford University Press. 167 pp, ISBN 978-0-19-884134-0, list price £16.99. W: