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Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Which do you think is more dangerous, Mother Nature or Man? A list of the worst natural disasters depends on whether you want to count dead bodies or property damage. Hurricane Katrina was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history at an estimated $100 billion, while Andrew (1992) added up to economic losses of $25 billion for the State of Florida. However, it will cost several more hundred billion dollars to bring New Orleans back to normality, and, perhaps a trillion dollars to prevent a future worse case scenario, an expenditure that just will not happen. The 1994 Northridge, California earthquake caused $44 billion in property loss and the 1995 Great Hanshin Kobe earthquake in Japan resulted in 6434 lives lost and damages of $200 billion, listed as the costliest natural disaster since 1900. However, the Great Kanto (Tokyo) Earthquake killed more than 100,00, so relative damages then must have been worse.
We already forget that the 7.9 magnitude Sichuan (China) disaster of May 12, 2008 (yes, this year) killed 70,000, destroying 8 million homes and damaging another 25 million. The monetary loss was reported to be $150 billion. Yes, too, there was the Burma Cyclone Nargis of this year on May 3 that killed more than 80,000 (with an additional 50,000 still missing) causing "only" $4 billion of damages.
But hurricanes have only accounted for 3% and earthquakes, 1%, of the total natural disaster deaths in the United States. Simple floods have taken a much higher toll. As an extreme example, in 1931, when the Yangtze River overflowed its banks, 3.7 million were killed in China.

Lives lost have become the headline item, and it is reported that 21 million people died from natural disasters from 1900 to 2004, or an average of 250,000/year, in the range of the number killed in the Indian Ocean earthquake-tsunami disaster the day after Christmas in 2004, which carried a damage value of “only” about $10 billion. That Sumatra earthquake released the equivalent of more than 23,000 Hiroshima Atomic bombs. But the storm surge in the Bay of Bengal in 1970 killed up to half a million. What is a life worth? At $100/person, the average 250,000 deaths/year is $25 million/year, or, at $1 million/person, make that $250 billion/year. But the Man-made category is particularly bewildering, as for example, it is said that medical mistakes account for 50,000-100,000 deaths each year and traffic deaths add up to 40,000/year, in the U.S. alone (with the worldwide annual road total being 1.2 million—ranking #3, to #1 AIDS and #2 childhood infections), and, if we take the arguably defensible position that much of this could have been prevented by a more responsible society, worldwide famine and disease account for 15-30 million deaths/year.

There are tables, and there are tables, but a recent reference on these statistics is . Can’t set aside, too, that in the past two centuries, over 200 years, wars and rebellions have killed about a million each year. We anguish over the 4000+ American deaths (estimated civilian casualties now approaching 100,000) in Iraq since 3/19/03, but there have been one million deaths per year, every year, for the past 200 years caused by man made wars and general unrest.

It is of historical interest to note that the 6th Century Justinian plague in Europe killed 100 million, when the world population was less than a quarter billion, or about a 40% fatality rate for that period. The 14th Century Black Death did away with 75 million in Europe and 60 million in China (15% of living beings), the plague of 1663-68 terminated 50 million in Europe (10%), famine of the later 1800’s wiped out 50 million worldwide (less than 5%), Mao’s regime in China during the 1949-1975 period eliminated 30-50 million (about an annual million or two), World War I and II casualties were 15 million and 50 million, and AIDS from 1978-2001 fatally killed 23 million (a million each year).

The largely ignored Congo civil war has already taken 5.4 million lives. This tragedy takes me back to my freshman year at Stanford when we were assigned to read and summarize the 1899 Joseph Conrad classic, Heart of Darkness, describing this terrible African hellhole on the Congo River. I recall a classmate spoofing “the horror, the horror” with “the whore, the whore,” and he got away with an “A” for creativity. So, in this same class, I attempted to think outside the box in my analysis of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” by finding a dictionary of the mid 1600’s when this poem was written, and to my glee, discerned that “coy” had an almost completely different definition, not the coquettishly shy maiden as one would have automatically surmised. Notwithstanding, I got a “C” for my efforts, as my English teacher said I missed the whole point of the poem, and the worst part of this all was that I did not have any confidence to challenge her. Forget the fact that I have now gained some confidence, the lesson learned was that people generally interpret from a limited base of knowledge. My Stanford English teacher only considered the present definition. Ah, the wisdom of current maturity, in hindsight.

While on this nostalgic note, I wonder what ever happened to Joseph Abouzed, a Sudanese the sugar company I worked for roomed me with in the early 60’s in Naalehu. He was proud of his cooking, which featured kidneys and brains. Perhaps he was a canibal. Just kidding, Joe. He went back home, near Darfur, where the UN recently reported that 400,000 have been killed and 2.5 million displaced by their own private civil war. Interesting that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon blamed global warming for causing drought conditions which resulted in this violence. But Joe seemed to have returned to hell while I remained in the paradise that became my life.
Notwithstanding, it is indeed sardonic to mention that Mankind seems to be gaining control of catastrophic casualties. Not as many are dying these days from major health contagions and wars (per capita).

We at this writing, we have a world population of 6,725,517,852 (305,235,587 Americans), which is anticipated to grow to 9 billion in 2050. About 130 million are annually born and 55 million die, a net gain of 75 million each year, even with all those premature casualties. Since 1960, the world death rate has dropped by a factor of two, while the birth rate has only been reduced by about a third. Good progress for our species, actually, but bad for our limited commons. Yet, Thomas Malthus has largely been proven wrong thus far. At the current rate of food consumption, we are already producing more than a 1000 times that which could be supported by a hunting/gathering society. It really doesn’t matter whether nature or Man was the cause, all that is necessary is to gain a universal will to properly educate and feed the general populace; prevent disease and accidents; eliminate crime; attain world peace; and, perhaps, end, if not reverse, aging. Then we can consider the universes around us. But most of these will be discussed in Book Two, SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity.
Typhoon Hagupit is at 110 MPH and should make landfall today in Guangdong Province, 200 miles southwest of Hong Kong. Yesterday, schools were cancelled, the Star Ferry stopped running and there was considerable rain and wind.
Crude oil prices settled at $106/bbl. It's been a wild day on Wall Street, as the DJI jumped 127 points, then dropped nearly 300 from this daily high, zoomed up 220, then fell 200, ending down 162 at 10,854. This metastability is ominous. Rightfully, but scarily, adding to the overall uncertainty is the attitude of the Senate Banking Committee to White House testimony, with the general attitude of "why should we bailout those who got rich irresponsibly." If Congress did not do a thing when oil reached $147/barrel in July, and oil dropped to $90/bbl last week, perhaps patience might work again.

1 comment:

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