Humans have a tendency to think of themselves of being outside of nature and often as being better than the rest of the natural world. This view has been embraced by intellectuals as well as the masses, and it often serves to blind us to the reality of the situation-at least until another disaster reminds us that we are firmly embedded in the natural world.
Our latest reminder is, of course, the terrible disaster that has struck Japan. The shaking of the earth and the rising of the sea struck a terrible blow against humanity and their works, thus showing that we are not beyond the reach of nature. Even the nuclear disaster reveals that we are vulnerable to nature as well-radiation is part of the natural world and though we might have thrown a leash on that dragon, it is always ready to consume us with its fire.
This situation, like all the other disasters before it, serves to show that despite all our technology and pride, we are still very vulnerable. While we so often see ourselves as masters of creation, in a matter of seconds we can become its victims. This is something that we should keep in mind.
While our delusion that we are somehow outside of nature does contribute to our failure to plan and prepare adequately, we are also hindered by other factors.
First, while we often overreact to threats from other humans (as our war on terror indicates), we generally tend to under estimate the threats posed by the forces of nature. So, for example, while we are dumping billions to fight a few rag tag terrorists, we are ill prepared to face the natural disasters that are certain to strike. Katrina, of course, shows just how well prepared we have been for such disasters. This is no doubt due to a key factor in human psychology regarding threat assessment. Also, there is the rather obvious fact that railing against human threats is great fodder for politics (and contractor profits), while being concerned about natural disasters seems to merely bore most of the public (at least until disaster strikes).
Second, in a nice bit of irony, the places that humans tend to find most appealing also tend to be places where disasters occur. An obvious example is the coast of Florida. It is beautiful, but also routinely hammered by storms. While it would make some sense to stay away from disaster areas, I doubt this is a viable option. After all, I really like the coast, too.
Third, planning and preparing for disasters seems to fall, psychologically, under the same sort of area as eating healthy and working out. Everyone knows that these are good ideas, yet people seem to find it very hard to actually act on that knowledge. It might be because the effort does not have an immediate payoff. Eating a bag of Cheetos feels good immediately while exercise feels bad to most people and won’t yield immediate results. Likewise, disaster planning and preparation does not yield immediate results and requires effort and expenditures that will probably only pay off in the future.
If my analogy holds, it would seem to follow that just as people often need coaches and trainers to motivate them to work out, we also need people who can motivate the public into preparing for disasters. Or, failing that, we need people and organizations that are willing to do the work for everyone else.
Fourth, people have a tendency to live in denial about future problems. Just as a smoker will not think much about lung cancer, people tend not to think about the next disaster. Just as a smoker will try to quit when they learn of a friend dying of lung cancer, we do worry about disasters when one strikes. So, for example, now that the Japanese reactor is spewing radiation, the rest of the world is poking at their reactors. Of course, just as most smokers go back to smoking after the funeral, we will be right back to ignoring things after we forget about Japan.
As the human population continues to increase and as our civilization grows ever more reliant on easily broken technology, the impact of disasters will continue to grow. After all, the more people who live in more concentrated areas, the greater the number of people who will be killed in a natural disaster. There is also the concern that our own actions are making the world more prone to more serious weather events. As such, we need to reconsider how we handle disaster planning and preparation or we can be sure that the coming disasters will be even worse.