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Disaster by Choice How Our Actions Turn Natural Hazards into Catastrophes

Popular Science
By: Ilan Kelman(Author)
167 pages, no illustrations
Disaster by Choice makes the provocative claim that there is no such thing as a natural disaster – our actions turn natural hazards into catastrophes.
Disaster by Choice
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Average customer review
  • Disaster by Choice ISBN: 9780198841340 Hardback Feb 2020 In stock
Price: £16.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

An earthquake shatters Haiti and a hurricane slices through Texas. We hear that nature runs rampant, seeking to destroy us through these 'natural disasters'. Science recounts a different story, however: disasters are not the consequence of natural causes; they are the consequence of human choices and decisions. we put ourselves in harm's way; we fail to take measures which we know would prevent disasters, no matter what the environment does.

This can be both hard to accept, and hard to unravel. A complex of factors shape disasters. They arise from the political processes dictating where and what we build, and from social circumstances which create and perpetuate poverty and discrimination. They develop from the social preference to blame nature for the damage wrought, when in fact events such as earthquakes and storms are entirely commonplace environmental processes We feel the need to fight natural forces, to reclaim what we assume is ours, and to protect ourselves from what we perceive to be wrath from outside our communities. This attitude distracts us from the real causes of disasters: humanity's decisions, as societies and as individuals. It stops us accepting the real solutions to disasters: making better decisions.

Disaster by Choice explores stories of some of our worst disasters to show how we can and should act to stop people dying when nature unleashes its energies. The disaster is not the tornado, the volcanic eruption, or climate change, but the deaths and injuries, the loss of irreplaceable property, and the lack and even denial of support to affected people, so that a short-term interruption becomes a long-term recovery nightmare. But we can combat this, as Kelman shows, describing inspiring examples of effective human action that limits damage, such as managing flooding in Toronto and villages in Bangladesh, or wildfire in Colorado.

Throughout, his message is clear: there is no such thing as a natural disaster. The disaster lies in our inability to deal with the environment and with ourselves.


Prelude: Disasters are not natural

1: An island paradise shattered
2: Nature's hazards
3: The story of vulnerability
4: Vulnerability by choice
5: Making the choice
6: Making the change

Further reading

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Provocative, but somewhat lacking in structure
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 23 Mar 2020 Written for Hardback

    There is no such thing as a natural disaster. This is the provocative statement that Professor of Disasters and Health Ilan Kelman makes with Disaster by Choice. The title pretty much sums it up: Earth can be a violent place alright, but our actions, or lack thereof, turn these hazards into catastrophes that cause unnecessary death, damage, and destruction. So, what are we to do?

    The book opens vividly with the 2010 Haiti earthquake that tore asunder the island and turned into a poorly managed humanitarian crisis when UN troops accidentally introduced a cholera epidemic (which is a bacterial infection, not a viral one, as Kelman writes here). Geologist Robert Yeats had called Haiti’s capital an example of an “earthquake time bomb” a week before disaster struck, and the city is just one of many catastrophes waiting to happen (see Earthquake Time Bombs). Of all the natural disasters discussed in this book, earthquakes feel the most menacing to me, as they really strike out of nowhere. We know which areas are at risk, but despite decades of research, predicting them is still virtually impossible (see also Predicting the Unpredictable and Dangerous Earth).

    Kelman proceeds with examples of recent wildfires in Australia and the North Sea flood of 1953 to drive home his point that we make ourselves vulnerable to disasters. This leads into what I thought were two somewhat muddled chapters on vulnerability.

    The first of these starts by stating it cannot meet the challenge of documenting how vulnerability is created and perpetuated, but then takes a stab at it anyway. As such, this chapter asks how vulnerability to natural hazards is influenced by population number (it is, but the proportion of a population affected is also important), age (old people are at risk, but so are young people who are often overconfident), ideology (only vaguely defined, but Kelman points to e.g. voting behaviour that does not address social and economic disparities), sex (in some countries women are more vulnerable to floods as they receive no swimming lessons), and economics (poverty does not help, but affluent people also often choose to live in places prone to natural hazards). Oh, and there is mention of city layout and planning, building design, and building codes in here too.

    The chapter that follows, which teases with the subtitle “Vulnerability by choice, but whose choice?”, continues in this vein. A strong start on the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak asks pointed questions as to why this epidemic was not suppressed quicker. But after that, I feel Kelman gets side-tracked in discussions on how migration and travelling increase vulnerability when people are unaware of local natural hazards, and how institutional choices on warning systems and shelter design can leave certain disabled groups particularly vulnerable.

    As Kelman mentions, these are all “essential pieces of the disaster jigsaw”, but he unfortunately does not really assemble them. And that is a shame, as I feel Kelman makes some excellent points of which I will highlight three.

    One, why do so many people live in dangerous areas? For many people, it is actually a lack of choice. Poverty, institutional neglect, and, in many third-world countries, a long history of colonial exploitation all feed into this.

    Two, writes Kelman, politics and power games often create and perpetuate systems that make people vulnerable to natural hazards. Those in power often have little interest in opposing e.g. lucrative property development in flood-prone areas or spending money to retrofit existing buildings to make them safer from wildfires or heatwaves.

    And three, where money is spent, it is often not spent wisely. We tend to focus on reducing the hazard rather than reducing people’s vulnerability. Kelman makes this point by talking of the rather obscure area of earthquake modification, the pie-in-the-sky idea of trying to control tectonic shifts (reducing the hazard), rather than focusing on constructing earthquake-proof infrastructure (reducing the vulnerability). I feel his example of how we deal with floods would have been better here. To wit, we often build expensive defences that need continuous maintenance (reducing the hazard), whereas we should construct houses that can handle a flood or avoid such areas altogether (reducing the vulnerability).

    These strong points are offset by what I feel are some shortcomings. When I first read of this book, I thought "isn't it simply a matter of more of us being in harm's way as our population has grown?" Disaster by Choice is surprisingly thin on numbers and statistics, with Kelman relying mostly on anecdotal examples and theorising. The list of notes takes up a mere four pages, and the further reading list is just half a page. Surely, there is more known about the number of victims and economic damage over time?

    Climate change also only gets a brief mention. Some have controversially argued that climate change does not increase disasters after everything else has been accounted for (see The Rightful Place of Science), whereas others think it does (e.g. the mass movements of water and melting of ice bringing about increased tectonic activity, see McGuire’s Waking the Giant). Kelman seems to side with the latter school of thought, though I was surprised to see no mention of McGuire’s ideas, especially as he wrote a glowing recommendation printed on the book’s dustjacket.

    Furthermore, Kelman only briefly mentions human psychology on page 128, writing how for many the threat of natural hazards is far removed from day-to-day concerns. How effective are emergency drills and government advice about preparedness in the face of this? What is the right balance between complacency and doomsday-prepper-madness?

    Finally, he writes, it is ludicrous to claim that preparing for disasters is too expensive – just look at the world’s annual military budget. Clearly, many governments look at this trade-off between costs and benefits differently. But more importantly, what would Kelman have us do with that money? Examples of solutions are scattered throughout the book. These include personal choices (awareness and preparedness), education (should first-aid and basic rescue skills be part of our school curricula?), infrastructure (engineering hacks to make buildings better able to withstand fire, floods, or earthquakes), and urban layout (which can help or hinder mass evacuations). A final chapter bringing them together, reflecting on their cost-effectiveness, would have been welcome.

    Although I personally thought the book was somewhat lacking in structure, Kelman is to be praised for boldly writing what many do not want to hear. At just over 150 pages, it is an easy, quick, but foremost thought-provoking read.
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Ilan Kelman is a Reader in Risk, Resilience and Global Health at University College London, England and a Professor II at the University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research.

Popular Science
By: Ilan Kelman(Author)
167 pages, no illustrations
Disaster by Choice makes the provocative claim that there is no such thing as a natural disaster – our actions turn natural hazards into catastrophes.
Media reviews

"Grimly informative."
– Andrew Robinson, Nature

"Disaster by Choice demonstrates in a vivid and engaging way why big issues like the current climate crisis, where people are starting to accept that their actions can contribute to a collective result on a global scale, are just the tip of the iceberg."
– Dominic Lenton, Engineering & Technology

"This is an excellent little book that crystallises ideas about the influence and impact of human actions on natural catastrophes into a thoughtful and informative narrative, concluding – and rightly so – that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. A must-read book."
– Professor Bill McGuire, author of Waking the Giant

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