Texans will find few consolations in the wake of a hurricane as terrifying as Harvey. But here, at least, is one: A Biblical storm has hit them, and the death toll —38 as of this writing — is mercifully low, given its intensity.
This is not how it plays out in much of the world. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch ripped through Central America and killed anywhere between 11,000 and 19,000 people, mostly in Honduras and Nicaragua. Nearly a decade later Cyclone Nargis slammed into Myanmar and a staggering 138,000 people perished.
Nature’s furies — hurricanes, earthquakes, landslides, droughts, infectious diseases, you name it — may strike unpredictably. But their effects are not distributed at random.
Climate activists often claim that unchecked economic growth and the things that go with are principal causes of environmental destruction. In reality, growth is the great offset. It’s a big part of the reason why, despite our warming planet, mortality rates from storms have declined from .11 per 100,000 in the 1900s to .04 per 100,000 in the 2010s, according to data compiled by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser. Death rates from other natural disasters such as floods and droughts have fallen by even more staggering percentages over the last century.
That’s because economic growth isn’t just a matter of parking lots paving over paradise. It also underwrites safety standards, funds scientific research, builds spillways and wastewater plants, creates “green jobs,” subsidizes Elon Musk, sets aside prime real estate for conservation, and so on. Poverty, not wealth, is the enemy of the environment. Only the rich have the luxury of developing an ethical stance toward their trash.
The paradox of our time is that the part of the world that has never been safer from the vagaries of nature seems never to have been more terrified of them. Harvey truly is an astonishing storm, the likes of which few people can easily remember.
Then again, as meteorologist Philip Klotzbach points out, it’s also only one of four Category 4 or 5 hurricanes to make landfall in the United States since 1970. By contrast, more than twice as many such storms made landfall between 1922 and 1969. Make of that what you will, but remember that fear is often a function of unfamiliarity.
Houston will ultimately recover from Harvey’s devastation because its people are creative and courageous. They will rebuild and when the next storm comes, as it inevitably will, be better prepared for it. The best lesson the world can take from Texas is to follow the path of its extraordinary economic growth on the way to environmental resilience.
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