A century ago, this year’s hurricanes would have killed countless more people.
Natural disasters kill thousands of people around the world annually, and they are not equal-opportunity killers. In a typical year, only hundreds of people are likely to die in Europe and the United States from floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes, but these events kill thousands of people each year in Asia, South and Central America, and on small island nations.
Earthquakes and hurricanes/cyclones are no stronger when they hit developing nations than they are when they affect developed countries, and flooding occurs in Europe and the United States every year, causing billions of dollars in damage but taking relatively few lives. In Asian countries, however, thousands drown during floods annually.
Why is there such a stark difference? It is not because of climatic factors or the presence of harsher natural disasters; it’s almost entirely because there is a difference in wealth.
Property rights and market economics — defended by strong but delimited governing institutions — existing alongside voluntary, dispersed self-help networks, have created wealth beyond what many people dreamed possible just one century ago. It has been this wealth that has fostered and been enhanced by the development of modern infrastructure; strong, disaster-resistant structures; improved building materials, techniques, and standards; the creation of new technologies, including early warning systems and emergency response systems; and modern medical treatment and facilities. Each has contributed to making industrialized societies more resilient.
In 1900, Galveston, Texas was a relatively large, modern city. Yet when the Great Galveston Hurricane (a Category 4 storm) hit the city, it claimed more than 8,000 lives. By contrast, Hurricane Ike caused just 84 deaths in 2008. And for all the talk about Hurricane Harvey (a Category 5 storm), it has resulted in a total of 70 deaths in the 23 counties harmed the most by the storm. Although millions more people live along Texas’ coasts now than in 1900, the present generation is much wealthier than it was then, so the people are safer.
As deadly as Hurricane Katrina was in 2005 (it caused the death of more than 1,200 people), it pales in comparison to the 300,000–500,000 lives lost in Bangladesh because of the Great Bhola Cyclone in 1970, or the 138,000 killed in Myanmar by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
Though earthquakes are hard to compare (due to magnitude and location), differences in mortality across location and time are still telling. The Great San Francisco earthquake and associated fire caused between 700 and 3,000 deaths. By comparison, the magnitude 6.9 earthquake that hit the San Francisco Bay region in 1989 only claimed 67 lives. There were vastly more people living in San Francisco in 1989 than in 1904, yet modern San Franciscans were much wealthier, and their city’s infrastructure and emergency response system was thus substantially better.
Despite the fact Taiwan is 600 percent more densely populated than Turkey, the 7.6 magnitude earthquake that hit Taiwan in September 1999 killed approximately 2,500 people, significantly fewer than the number killed by the 7.4 magnitude earthquake that struck Turkey just one month earlier. (It killed more than 17,000 people in just two cities.) In 1999, Taiwan’s per-capita income was more than double that of Turkey’s.
Compared to poorer communities, wealthier societies are more resilient, better prepared for natural disasters when they occur, and better able to respond quickly and effectively in the aftermath of disasters.
Fossil fuels are critical to wealth creation. Their use has helped nations thrive in the face of an ever-changing and often capricious climate. The use of oil, coal, and natural gas has allowed billions to live freer, healthier, more prosperous, and longer lives than at any time in human history.
Although ancient kings controlled armies and untold riches, I have a car, microwave, indoor plumbing, and safe drinking water. I can eat almost any fruit or vegetable without regard to season, and I can travel across the world in mere hours. All the wealth and power ancient emperors had couldn’t buy any one of these things, and they were all made possible through the use of fossil fuels.
The rise from penury didn’t happen under tyranny or feudalism; it happened under capitalism. And the world’s most powerful capitalistic societies haven’t been powered by animal dung, animal power, or wind turbines; they have been driven by fossil fuels and the technologies they power.
Today’s poor deserve the chance to live as I do and not as our ancestors did for millennia, toiling in poverty, constantly threatened with disease and malnourishment. Only fossil fuels can deliver them from this fate.
Galveston, 1890 (Flickr-Creative Commons)