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Disaster By Choice, by Ilam Kelman

Read this one ahead of the first Geography Teacher Book Club chat on Twitter (Zoom, actually - fancy). Ilam Kelman himself was in attendance so it was great to hear his thoughts and put a face to a name!

It is a very easy-to-read book, superb for our students looking for a high-quality non-fiction book. It moves from case study to case study with some pace.

Top takeaways:

  1. Artificial land reclamation is inherently unstable - prone to 'liquefy' during an Earthquake. This is worrisome - I'd previously seen land reclamation and the associated tech as a potentially useful means of fighting back against/adaption strategy for rising sea levels. It still may be, just need to keep this in mind!

  2. The essential message is, effectively, that failing to prepare is preparing to fail - and that therefore most 'natural disasters' are actually man-made disasters (with a few exceptions). We could be ready for them and minimize their impact - but we choose not to.

  3. The Law of Unintended Consequences seems to be really well explained and delved into here, a little bit like the discussions I've had with previous classes over Chernobyl, how people acting in what they believe to be the best interests inadvertently cause a problem elsewhere.

My raw notes, which I intend to fashion into some reading tasks - can be found below:

Interesting that we are having this discussion as Hurricane Ian his and DART was successful.

Start with guided reading the preface: What is the message the author is trying to convey?

Natural or man made? - sorting task of disasters.

Can they impact each other? Come up with a few links as a class.

Case Study: Australian bush fires - aborgiinal techniques versus 'European' - use the text from SAMPLE 1 to generate the factors.

Case Study: Floods.

What does the author think is the correct solution? Read the extract (SAMPLE 2) and Sample 3 - And prepare a debate - do flood protection make us more vulnerable?

Is there a link between this and wildfires? The things we do that we think protect us, actually make us more.vulnerable...?

Factors behind disaster...

Age? Density?

Age can confer experience, density can give people access to emergency services close to hand, so both factors traditionally seen as a risk factor in disasters can also help.


"Disasters are not natural. We—humanity and society—create them and we can choose to prevent them. That is the main message of this book. Stating that natural disasters do not exist because humans cause disasters seems insanely provocative. We witness nature ravaging our lives all the time: from a city underwater after a hurricane to rows of smouldering houses after a wildfire to the dust rising from the ruins after an earthquake. How could we withstand the 400 kilometre per hour winds of a tornado, faster than Japan’s bullet trains, or the 1,200ºC temperature of lava, hotter than many potters’ kilns? How would we feel if an ‘expert’ lectured to us that it was not nature’s fault, as we sifted through the few photos salvaged from the pile of debris which was once our home and our life? Yet even when we cannot keep our infrastructure standing, we can stop people dying, we can protect our most valuable possessions, and we can learn to deal with devastation. The disaster lies not in the forces unleashed by nature, but in the deaths and injuries, the loss of irreplaceable homes and livelihoods, and the failure to support affected people, so that a short-term interruption becomes a long-term recovery nightmare. The tornado, the earthquake, the tsunami are not to blame. They are manifestations of nature which have occurred countless times over the aeons of Earth’s history. The disaster consists of our inability to deal with them as part of nature. We have the knowledge, ability, technology, and resources to build houses which are not ripped apart by 400 kilometre per hour winds. If we choose to, we can create a culture with warning and safe sheltering. Lava at 1200ºC and a tsunami higher than our building are harder to ride out. But we can shun places likely to be hit by them or we can create a culture which understands and accepts periodic destruction, again with warning and safe evacuation, to permit swift rebuilding afterwards. The baseline is that we have options regarding where we live, how we build, and how we get ourselves ready for living with nature. Many of the choices we make currently permit death and devastation. They create the conditions for disasters. Nature does not choose, but we do. We can choose to avoid disasters, and that means disasters are not natural."


When we have not planned or prepared for it, nature’s hazards over any time period lead to damage and losses, to life, livelihood, and infrastructure—in effect, a disaster. The key is ‘when we have not planned or prepared for it’. In none of these cases is nature intent on being malicious.

Kelman, Ilan. Disaster by Choice (pp. 18-19). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.



Indigenous Australians managed fires for tens of thousands of years. They set controlled blazes to alter the environment for maintaining tracks, trapping animals, and avoiding the build-up of burnable fuel which could lead to large conflagrations. Over time, indigenous practices adapted the ecosystems to support plant species which could survive low-intensity bushfires, actually using fire to propagate. Fire was part of land use and land management, integrated into human needs among other environmental adjustments, although we do not really know how many fire disasters the indigenous Australians might have caused nor how many of them perished in the flames. Europeans imported and imposed a different perspective of bushfires. Flames were presumed always to be dangerous and damaging, so they were suppressed and fought. As settlements expanded into the bush, fires indeed became highly destructive and lethal, reinforcing the combat mode. The same is true across North America. Wildfire is part of the ecosystem and it is a needed ecosystem process. Californian and Coloradan forests, meadows, and scrubland would not exist today without occasional burning. Suburbia has sprawled into these areas of vegetation and their fires. How could we help ourselves and nature by living with natural fire rather than harming both by manipulating it? The theory is that preventing wildfires delays the inevitable. Ecosystems expecting frequent, lower-intensity fires might have trouble with the changed regime of less regular flames. Leaves, plant litter, and dead trees build up, providing large swathes of combustible fuel during dry spells. Then, a rare fire rages as a high-intensity, hard-to-control inferno destroying plants, animals, people, and infrastructure.

Kelman, Ilan. Disaster by Choice (p. 22). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.



This is a smart idea: SAMPLE 2

We even chat with our insurance company. We let them know where we live and ensure that we are covered for floods above the ground floor and for non-river floods, such as a pipe bursting, a bathtub overflowing, or rainwater pelting through open or broken windows. As part of the deal, we agree not to claim for any ground floor inundation from the river. In short, we learn to live with the regular floods. We accept that we gain from living beside the river, with the cost of making some adjustments to our property and life alongside a bit of disruption. We are ready to deal with the typical river water ourselves while having backup for other types of flooding or unusual river extremes reaching above our ground floor.

SaMPLE 2 end.

Sample 3.

Another fascinating point:

Does flood protection make us more vulnerable?

"In the final scenario, we would have been flooded even without the embankment. But if it had never been built, we would have been ready for the flood hazard and we would have reduced our vulnerability. The embankment’s presence lulled us into losing our flood risk knowledge, permitting vulnerability reduction measures to lapse. We see the embankment, we are told that it separates us from the river, and we assume that we are protected from floods. This false sense of security increases flood vulnerability over the long term by eliminating some small-scale flood hazards in the short term. Without other actions to tackle flood vulnerability, we create a higher flood risk. The absence of an embankment would also curtail fast-flowing floods smashing into our walls. The water would typically rise slowly as the river swells and spreads out. The collapsing embankment could add a significantly dangerous component to any flood. The important point here is to admit that we can do something about our vulnerability and stop disasters, no matter what the hazard or what we do to the hazard. But we must make the decision to do so. A mindset of prevention accepts the advantages and limitations of the river embankment. We still need a flood-resistant ground floor, flood insurance, and action plans in case of different flood types. We also need to understand how the embankment might have changed the flood regime, outdating our knowledge."

How do we measure risk and disaster?

Is it purely in numbers affected? Or is it in how resilient the populations are? Montserrat versus India: the paragraph before this one made it clear that Indian victims had access to more areas to move to, more money coming in and more support compared to the residents of Montserrat who were mostly isolated.

"Disasters in India are devastating in their own right and should never be downplayed, especially considering what each affected individual goes through. But the forms of vulnerability and disaster experienced in India and in Montserrat display major differences when the total number of people affected is compared with the proportion of the population affected. India’s disasters far exceed anything in Montserrat in terms of total numbers of people affected, while those of Montserrat far exceed anything in India in terms of proportion of population involved. And the comparisons by number do not stop here. The proportions of people within different populations—grouped by age, gender, sex, sexuality, race, ethnicity, first language, or disability—should also be compared with respect to how they are impacted by a disaster."


Problem solved, right?

Some tree species are good at soaking up water, although one challenge is then that during rainfall shortages, they might suck up too much, exacerbating a drought, or else die. In any case, planting non-native species is not typically a good idea because they might significantly harm local species and local ecosystems. Meanwhile, any storage areas and greenways have a limit to how much water they can redirect or retain, so a possibility inevitably exists of this limit being exceeded.

The law of unintended consequences:

Dedicated efforts rid those areas of the hazards, though in some cases the methods used led to other problems. In England, the coasts were transformed by draining marshland, filling in land, and building up the shorelines to create the huge vulnerability to storm surge flooding witnessed today, such as for Canvey Island. The hazard of ague was removed, but at the cost of creating vulnerability to floods. Future efforts to reduce flood risk should ensure that other hazards and vulnerabilities are not augmented.

Nomandism had its advantages! When the climate became tough or disaster struck, you just moved on!


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