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Natural and Unnatural Disasters: Tsunamis, Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Global Warming, and Poverty

by Dan Brook

Disasters come in many forms.

The 7.0 earthquake that turned the capital of Haiti into a pile of rubble hit on 12 January 2010, causing shocking devastation in an already devastated country. The combination of French colonialism, U.S. military occupation, dictatorial rule, overpopulation, deforestation, capitalist globalization, lack of education, and other factors already made Haiti one of the poorest countries.

On 29 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana, eventually breeching the levees surrounding New Orleans and drowning the city, especially the disproportionately poor and African-American Lower Ninth Ward.

The tsunami that erupted in the Indian Ocean from the massive 9.0 earthquake on 26 December 2004 was incredibly powerful, immensely destructive, and very deadly, perhaps killing a quarter of a million people or more.

I felt -- and continue to feel -- the pain of these events.

Though these were natural disasters, some of the causes and certainly the consequences were unnatural and not entirely random.

Generally, in Indonesia, the areas with the most destruction, with the possible exception of Banda Aceh, near the epicenter, were the areas where there had been the most economic growth, the most capitalist development, and therefore the most environmental degradation, e.g., primarily tourist infrastructure and shrimp farming that, among other things, destroyed the mangrove forests and coral reefs that serve as rich ecosystems and natural barriers against tidal waves.

My son asked if the people affected by the disaster were (are!) so poor, why didn't we help them before the disaster? A very good question indeed.

Poverty is a chronic tsunami, a constant hurricane, a never-ending earthquake, and the big wave of malnutrition, the fierce winds of hunger, and the planetary rumbling of starvation are ever present. With about a billion people -- approximately 1,000,000,000 people! -- with insecure and irregular access to enough food and clean water, millions of poor people die each year, tens of thousands of poor people each day, another poor person every few seconds of every day of every year. It boggles my mind and pains my heart. It should inspire us to action.

Food and water are the most basic necessities for all sentient beings, whether people, other animals, or plants. Yet, in most places of the world, food is a commodity for sale, an essential product in search of private profit, a privilege for those who can afford to pay the parasitic price. As basic and existential and material and requisite as it is, food is purposely withheld from those with physical need for those with economic demand regardless of physical condition. Sometimes food is freely given to those in desperate need; mostly it isn't.

It is wonderful that we have scientists and others researching and working on treatments and cures for various ailments and diseases. That should certainly continue. But we should also work on the treatments and cures for hunger, dysentery, gastroenteritis, and other very well-known, very easily-treated causes of suffering, starvation, and mass death. Treatment involves taking proper care of suffering people; cures imply removing, reforming, or revolutionizing the structures and systems that result in such massive yet unnecessary tragedies. It may be complex, but it is not complicated. Food must be an absolute right, not a privilege.

Natural disasters come in many forms. Climate change in the form of global warming is a slow tsunami, an ever-present earthquake. We are overheating the Earth, cooking the planet, slowly boiling ourselves and many other forms of life to death. We already know what happens when we overheat a car, when we overcook a meal, when our bodies are feverish; we can surmise what will happen if we continue to overheat the Earth. It isn't pretty and it will get much uglier.

Tepidly called global warming, some such as Rabbi Arthur Waskow call this type of climate change "global scorching". Regardless, global warming is a global warning. Apparently, reports for and from groups as disparate as the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, Greenpeace, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Oxfam, the Pentagon, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the World Bank, the World Meteorological Organization, and a vast number of other scientists, political economic analysts, and environmentalists agree. The Pentagon report, for example, states that global warming "should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a U.S. national security concern", higher even than terrorism, warning of riots and declaring that "future wars will be fought over the issue of survival rather than religion, ideology, or national honor".

The signs of an overheating Earth are clear and the evidence is rushing in and rising: hotter weather in many places, though colder weather in some places; more frequent and violent storms; mass species extinctions; spread of disease; eco-spasms; crop failures; melting glaciers and polar ice caps; earlier springs; rising water temperatures; rising ocean levels; acidification of the oceans; disturbed Atlantic Conveyor and Gulf Stream systems; submerged islands; loss of coastline; and the threat of submerged cities such as New York, Miami, New Orleans, Bangkok, Dhaka, Tokyo, Shanghai, Sydney, Venice, and many, many other cities. As usual, the poor are being disproportionately affected.

Reducing consumption, reducing waste and emissions, recycling and using recycled goods, using renewable energies instead of fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal, protecting and replanting forests, reducing or eliminating meat consumption, and reducing or eliminating smoking are some of things that should be done. While we should do these things and more, we also need to pressure our governments and the corporations to do much more to be sustainable.

Disasters come in many forms. I mourn for those killed by the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the Haitian earthquake. I mourn for those killed each day by the chronic disaster of poverty. I mourn for the current and future generations who will suffer from the slow disaster of global warming. We need to stop these disasters before they reach land and affect us with disastrous results. We can do it, but we need to be alert and aware, progressive and proactive, and we need to take immediate action.

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