A Philosopher's Blog

Natural Disasters & Responsibility

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 20, 2017
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Natural disasters are increasing in both intensity and frequency. One explanation, which is politically controversial, is that climate change is a contributing factor. What is not controversial is the fact that more people now live in at risk areas than ever before. As such, disasters that would have previously impacted few or even no people, now impact many people. In some cases, people are living in areas that are very desirable aside from their vulnerability. For example, coastal property is general very desirable, yet is often subject to risks of flooding and storm damage. In other cases, people are living in undesirable areas that are also risky areas. For example, poor people in developing cities sometimes live in areas that are prone to flooding.

There is also the fact that infrastructure is now more elaborate and expensive than ever before in human history.  For example, cities now have electrical systems, communication infrastructure and subways that are expensive to repair and replace after disasters. Because of this, the cost of damage done by disasters is far greater than it used to be in the past.

While some natural disasters are unlikely, strike unexpectedly and recur infrequently, there are many that are likely, predictable and occur frequently. While people do sometimes wisely decide to avoid such areas, they also often decide to rebuild repeatedly. For example, people in flood or hurricane prone regions often rebuild after each flood or storm. In some cases, this is because it is not practical for them to move somewhere else. In other cases, they do so because some of the cost of rebuilding is provided by the state. Rebuilding is also often funded by insurance; with people in lower risk areas contributing to the pool of money that covers those who life in high risk areas. This leads to the moral question of whether others should be responsible for helping people who elect to live in high risk areas repeatedly rebuild.

One way to look at civilization is that it should function as a form of insurance. That is, people in a civilization pool some of their resources to be used to help their fellows when they are in need. Laying aside moral motivations, there are very practical reasons to participate in this function of civilization. Cooperating in this way makes it more likely that others will help you when you are in need and it also helps sustain the system that provides the assistance. So, roughly put, self-interest gives me a reason to assist others in need—it costs me to help them, but this is the reasonable price I must pay to expect their help.

There are, of course, the usual concerns about free-riders. That is, people who do not contribute to this aspect of civilization but want to reap the benefits. This issue, however, goes far beyond the scope of this short essay. However, the usual reply to the free-rider problem is that the free riders will destroy the system they hope to benefit from.

There is also the concern about the independents. These can include people who are wealthy enough to not need the help of others when rebuilding and people who simply do not want the help of others. A case can certainly be made that people who decline using this benefit of civilization have a moral justification for not contributing—but, of course, they would need to be consistent about this. This is, of course, a far more general area of concern than that of the issue of repeatedly assisting people rebuild.

There is also the view that rejects the idea that civilization is supposed to function as a form of insurance. Some might instead regard civilization as a means of organizing and ensuring the flow of resources from the many at the bottom of the pyramid to the few elites at the top. Others might regard civilization as merely existing to provide basic functions of defense and law-enforcement and not help people rebuild.

Obviously enough, if there is no obligation to help people rebuild, then there is no obligation to help people continuously rebuild. As such, for the sake of the discussion that follows about assisting people rebuilding multiple times, it must be assumed (only for the sake of the argument) that there is at least the basic obligation to help people rebuild. The question is, then, whether even assuming the basic obligation, there is an obligation to assist people in multiple rebuilds.

One approach, which is rather lazy, is to argue that if we are obligated to help others rebuild, then this obligation persists. To use an analogy, if a parent is obligated to provide clothing for their child, they are obligated to do so each time the child needs clothing and not just the first time. While this approach has some appeal, it falls apart quickly when another analogy is considered.

While a parent has an obligation to provide their child with clothing, consider a child who was wearing their nicest clothes when they got into the muck and mud. If this happens by accident or the unwarranted action of another, then the parent should replace the clothing (if they can afford to do so). However, if the child persists in playing near the muck while wearing their best clothing despite the warnings of their parents and thus repeatedly ruin their nice clothing, then the parent would no longer be obligated to replace the nice clothing.  This is because the child knows what is at risk and can easily avoid it by staying away from the muck or wearing muck appropriate clothing. Matters would, of course, be different if the child had no way to avoid the risk of the muck, such as if it surrounded their house.

The same reasoning would seem to apply to helping others rebuild by providing public money or having them in the insurance pool. If a person’s property is damaged unexpectedly or by the malice of another, then it seems reasonable to assist them. However, if they insist on remaining at risk and it is known that it is just a matter of time before they will need to rebuild again, then they are like the child who insists on playing near the muck and mud in their nice clothes. If they are willing to pay for their own rebuilding, then they are free to live in a risk prone area. Just as the child can risk their clothes as they wish, if they are paying for them. Naturally, if the person truly has no other option as to where they live, then this would not apply. However, people almost always have other options.

It could be objected that this approach is defective because anyone anywhere could be subject to repeat disasters. To simply say that the obligation to help others ends at some arbitrary repeat of the aid would seem to be unfair and even cruel. Going back to the clothes analogy, a child could have their clothes ruined on numerous occasions by pure chance. But, if the parents could afford the clothing, then it seems reasonable for them to replace the damaged clothing.

A reasonable reply is that it is not just a matter of repeat rebuilding, but also a matter of the predictability of the need to rebuild. For example, a person could be very unlucky and have their house damaged many times by different sorts of unlikely and unexpected natural disasters. In this case, they would not be responsible—they had no reason to expect the disasters to strike and were not knowingly engaging in risky living. As such, what should be considered beyond the numbers of rebuilds are such factors as the probability of the risk and what the property owner could reasonably be expected to know about it. If a person insists on living in an area of unusually high risk and is aware of the risk, then this reduces or eliminates the obligations of others. After all, they could avoid the risk and doing so is their responsibility. There is then the practical question of sorting out how much specific risks reduce the obligations of others, but this goes beyond the scope of this essay

This matter can be illuminated by an analogy to the Coast Guard. If a person goes out to sea on a normal day and takes reasonable precautions, but is swamped by a rogue wave, then the Coast Guard should rescue them and not bill them. If a person insists on doing something foolish and unnecessary, like taking a peddle powered boat far out into the ocean without preparing properly and they get in trouble, then the Coast Guard should still rescue them. The first time should, perhaps, still be free—this might be justified because the person might not know any better. If the person insists on doing it again, then the Coast Guard should still rescue them when they get in trouble, but it would be right to charge them for the rescue: they should know better and it is not something they need to do. People who insist on knowingly living in high risk areas are analogous to the person who insists on peddling out to sea—they might want to do this, but do not need to do it. As such, they should bear the cost of rebuilding when their property is damaged or destroyed.

There are, of course, cases in which people do put themselves knowingly at risk but have justifiable reasons for doing so. Sticking with the Coast Guard analogy, crews of cargo vessels and fishing vessels do put themselves at risk, but they do so because that is part of their job—they have good reasons to be out at sea. As such, if a fishing crew is rescued a few times over the course of their career because of bad luck, then the rescues should still be free.

By analogy, people could have adequate reasons that justify living in high risk areas that would maintain the obligation to assist them in rebuilding. Perhaps, for example, a person might live in a forest prone to fires because they do important work in the forest and living somewhere else would be impractical.  However, someone who simply wants to live on the coast or someplace pretty would not have this sort of justification—they want to live there, but doing so is not what they need to do.

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3 Responses

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  1. DH said, on September 22, 2017 at 9:01 am

    This is an interesting discussion which bears more thought and comment – however, I want to address some of the statements you make and talk a little about the semantics and perception.

    “Natural disasters are increasing in both intensity and frequency.

    What I question is your use of the word “disasters”. Before I go on, I want to give my question a little context with another of the statements in your essay:

    “…disasters that would have previously impacted few or even no people, now impact many people.”

    Natural phenomena, such as tropical cyclones (“TC”, which include all categories of hurricane), earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and the like, are not in and of themselves “disasters”. They are phenomena. They become disasters in our eyes when they have a negative impact on people. The use of the word “disaster” is inappropriate if they affect no people, and again if they create a positive impact on a civilization or community. For example, when the Nile used to flood during the Early Dynastic period, it was a boon to the civilization – a kind of “natural irrigation” that not only increased their crop yields, but was the basis for their very survival.

    So when you say “Natural disasters are increasing in both intensity and frequency., you could mean that the disastrous effects of natural phenomena to human civilization are increasing – in which case I would agree with you; I would also agree with many of your later points – that with increasing populations in storm-prone areas, for example, are part of the root cause of the increase in “disasters”.

    However, if you mean “Natural phenomena, such as Tropical Cyclones, are increasing in intensity and frequency” , I would question that.

    If we consider only our perception, I think that the belief in the increase in these weather phenomena has similar underpinnings to our belief in the increase in gun violence – they are reported more frequently (possibly with the same political motivation), and the stories are “in our face” more persistently because of the 24-hour cable news phenomena, Twitter, Facebook, and other Internet sources.

    I think that a shift toward a more global awareness also affects this perception. For example, had it not been for George Harrison and Ravi Shankar in 1971, the disastrous weather-related phenomena in Pakistan that caused the political and humanitarian disasters in that area might have been a major story for a day or two, then die a slow death on the news cycle. Today disasters like that stay current for weeks.

    From a more scientific point of view, our perception is based also on an incomplete set of facts. As satellites have become more prevalent, our observation of storms at sea or in unpopulated areas has become more accurate and more complete. In addition to that, there is also more direct observation of storms at sea because there are more ships to observe them.

    Gabriel A. Vecchi and Thomas R. Knutson, of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory/NOAA in Princeton, NJ, published a scholarly paper in 2011 titled “Historical Changes in Atlantic Hurricane and Tropical Storms”, subtitled “How well do we know the historical cyclone record?” This, in combination with other papers (Andsea et al, 2010, Vechhi and Knutson 2008, Villarini et al, 2011) suggest that,

    “based on careful examination of the Atlantic tropical storm database (HURDAT) and on estimates of how many storms were likely missed in the past, it is likely that the increase in Atlantic tropical storm and hurricane frequency in HURDAT since the late-1800s is primarily due to improved monitoring.”


    The statistics show an increase based on improved monitoring, the disasters are on the increase because of population growth, and our awareness of all of this has become more acute because of changes in information delivery and persistence. The weather has stayed the same.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 25, 2017 at 2:02 pm

      A fair semantic point. I should have been more careful distinguishing between disasters and natural events that would be disasters if they had occurred in areas occupied by people. While one could argue that such an event could be a disaster for the animals or plants in the impacted area, you are right to say that we consider disasters to involve humans (mostly).

  2. DH said, on September 26, 2017 at 3:20 am

    In Buddhism, “To live is to suffer”, and “The root of all suffering is desire”. I think that humans perceive the world in the context of their own desires, and when those desires aren’t met, we see a negative result. I think that the reason we don’t argue that natural events are disasters if they impact only animals and plants is that we don’t really have a “plan” or expectation for them. If a flood or hurricane destroys all the flora or fauna in an area, that’s not really a loss to us – it’s just nature. Maybe new species will take over in an area, maybe the natural phenomenon has served to limit a population – but no matter how great the impact, it’s not a disaster.

    Somehow we believe we are exempt from that. We believe that we are destined to live beyond our natural “life expectancy”, and if we don’t, it’s a tragedy. Some of us do, of course, and some of us die as children or young adults. It’s very hard to accept that fate in the same context as we accept it in the animal kingdom.

    Of course, disaster is also measured in terms of loss of property – in fact, that may be the greatest measure in our society If a tree is taken down in a storm, the birds or squirrels living there will find a new tree – but if our house collapses, well, that’s a disaster. It’s all about our expectations, our desires.

    While I didn’t really focus on the political ramifications of this in my initial response, I think that that may be the most salient point here – that as long as we talk about this in terms of “disaster”, if we erroneously conflate the meanings of “disaster” and “natural phenomenon”, and if we fail to acknowledge that our perception is being altered by the words we use, by the improvements in monitoring, by the increase in population in storm-prone areas and the constant assault of news, blogs, and social media – well, then, we might just believe that some awful thing is happening to our Earth, and that somehow we are to blame.

    There are those who would take such perceived crises and, by exploiting the willful ignorance of the people, use them to their own advantage.

    As always, we must be careful of the words we use – when they reach a fever pitch they are no longer simply semantics.

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