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Let us keep ‘Nature’ separate from Disasters!


By Roli S

Nothing compares to nature’s beauty, from spring’s hopeful new blooms and autumn’s exquisite array of colours to winter’s magic and summer’s energy, each season abounds with different types of natural beauty to explore and admire. Nature’s beauty has lush meadows full of brilliantly coloured flowers, silvery mountains covered in snow, or dense forests with sky-high trees. Everything about nature has us itching to get out of our homes and go outside. Mother Nature is the ultimate inspiration. Often, nature’s beauty can take our breath (and words) away.

In contrast to the above pleasing description, we are increasingly witnessing nature at its absolute fierce and vicious worst. The images of people and homes being washed away in the mud, slush, and water, drowning of cities, towns and washing away of many man-made structures, etc., make us squirm and writhe in pain at nature’s hostility and malevolence making us call the floods, the rains, the cloudbursts, etc., ‘Natural Disasters’. This happens because it involves a great deal of human suffering, not because the natural event itself is especially uncommon or singular.

The destruction caused on an uninhabited island by flooding will not gain the name of a ‘natural disaster’, because it doesn’t really matter to humans. A landslide doesn’t matter, however enormous, unless there is a town at the bottom of the hill. So, the word “natural” is added to the disaster just to demarcate the edges of responsibility. In my opinion, we don’t use the term very well.

The suffering of a man-made disaster such as Bhopal Gas Tragedy or Chernobyl is, therefore, the responsibility of particular persons and institutions. They can be held answerable for their decisions. They are required to justify them and judged – and punished – if they fail to do so. In contrast, natural disasters are supposed to have been caused entirely by forces outside human control. They are deemed inevitable. No one can be held responsible for that.

This point I will try to clarify with the example of earthquakes that occur around the world. In the year 2010 in Haiti there was an earthquake that killed 200,000 people, but an even more powerful earthquake off the coast of Chile a month after Haiti’s killed only a few hundred people! Earthquakes don’t kill people, falling buildings do. Thus, there is a gap between the occurrence of the exciting natural event and the outcome we actually care about: all that human suffering.

So, we can understand with this example the fact that people in different countries do some important things differently, and that this determines how similar natural events affect them. In other words, it is the decisions of human beings, including the institutions and rules their decisions set up, that decide whether a dangerous natural event will produce a disaster! Zoning rules and enforcement for construction of manmade structures, poor quality building codes, together with poor logistical planning and preparation of residents to respond to the dangers raised by such natural events, etc., are some of the reasons for any disaster to occur.

In India, we are increasingly witnessing the well managed cyclonic events in recent days, the same ones that used to cause large scale damage in the past and were newsworthy ‘Natural Disasters’.

Genuine natural disasters may still occur, such as an asteroid strike, or an earthquake in a place that has never experienced one before or a sudden volcanic eruption or a cloudburst after hundreds of years. But these are remote possibilities. These days, if I look closely, almost all serious disasters are man-made; especially the ones caused by floods and land landslide, mudslide, etc.

Just recognising a disaster as man-made and not merely a ‘natural disaster’ initiates a probe into the bad decisions made by humans that made it possible in the first place. Part of that is disclosing relevant causes responsible for culpable negligence and deterring such laxity in future. But it is also an opportunity to ensure that systematically better choices are made in times to come.

No doubt ‘the planet is threatened in a big way by ‘Climate Change’ but to declare it the only major cause of everything bad that happens, blinds us to the real – and remediable – reasons that disasters turn out as they do. Calling out “Climate Change!” at every hurricane, drought or flood reflects a gloomy passivity rather than scientific objectivity. The reason that we have so many more newsworthy weather-related disasters these days than we used to have in the past also reflects the fact that a vast number of people are now living in vulnerable places in the present.

I am of the opinion that we should stop using the phrase “natural disaster” for every natural event that occurs, because most ‘disasters’ around the world are the outcome of the interaction of extreme ‘natural events’ and poor human decisions. Thus, we humans can review such interactions with nature and recognise decisions that magnify or contain the inherent dangers of natural phenomena like extreme weather.

Actually, using the word ‘natural’ ignores the role that humans play in the disaster. Even ‘Global Warming’ and ‘Climate Change’ is manmade, after all! Let us not assume all the time that the natural events would happen anyway and there is little that we can do to prevent it. Shifting the blame for the disaster damage and losses to nature or to an ‘act of God’ absolves responsibility for communities living in vulnerable conditions and locations. That is when the word ‘Natural Disaster’ takes away the social, political, environmental and economic context from all the disaster stories around the world, failing to recognise the social injustices and local issues that are present. Getting the term right is crucial because it shapes how we think about disasters and how they are linked to issues like ‘Climate Change’. That is when the slogan ‘Act Local, Think Global’ comes into play.

The climate crisis is, in fact, a human crisis, permanently changing the lives of millions of people living at vulnerable locations around the world. It is having a huge impact on people who depend on the weather for their livelihoods. People who farm, rear livestock, or live a nomadic lifestyle are struggling to feed their families. Climate shocks bring devastating and long-term effects, often forcing them to move away into cities. Is this the way into the future? Abandoning nature?

‘Climate Change’ is an obvious and looming threat, weather and natural events happening are unavoidable, the human will to search for new frontiers is ever present but above it all the calming, health-giving, mythical, and quixotic ‘Nature’ will continue to inspire hearts and minds to search for that Promised Land. Amidst all this opera of humanity and nature, sanity has to be found, a balance has to be established! Let us not spoil beautiful nature by clubbing it with disaster as far as possible and keep it as ‘divine sanction’ through our mindful actions!

(Roli S is an Educator, Teacher Trainer, Author and School Reviewer based in Thane.)