All Commentary
Monday, January 18, 2010

Wealth, Poverty, and Natural Disasters

Prosperity saves lives.

The earthquake in Haiti was a magnitude of 7.0. According to Wikipedia, the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in San Francisco was either 7.0 or 6.9 depending on which scale is used. In other words, the intensities were fairly similar. Haiti is devastated. If the New York Times is correct, the death toll could be in the tens of thousands. The death toll in the 1989 quake was 63, if you include indirect deaths due the quake.

The difference is wealth. San Francisco is one of the wealthiest areas in our part of the world, while Haiti is the poorest. Poverty makes natural disasters worse. Wealth mitigates natural disasters. You would think that those who worry about the poor of the world would promote policies that increase wealth. Instead, they push policies that restrain wealth creation, and they do it intentionally and knowing it will restrain wealth creation.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation, an affiliate of the German Green Party, issued a report that referred to wealth areas, like San Francisco, as being populated by “over-consumers.” On the other hand, poor areas like Haiti were called “under-consumers.” But that is a misnomer since the report writers also make clear that in their ideal centrally planned paradise the “under-consumers are not to catch up with the over-consumers.” They indicate that in the name of equality the over-consumers must have their wealth taken from them. They very explicitly attack those who would try to help develop the poor nations of the world because such people “work at lifting the threshold—rather than lowering or modifying the roof…. Poverty alleviation, in other words, cannot be separated from wealth alleviation.”

The truth is that wealthy people can bear the burdens of the worst Mother Nature throws at us. I know the Greens want us all to live in tune with nature, but Mother Nature has no feelings, no compassion, and is quite happy to turn you into fertilizer.  Condemn materialism and wealth all you want, but it saves lives. Sure, if you hate humans, then you won’t care. But whatever problems wealth creation is claimed to cause, they pale in comparison to the problems that accompany poverty.

The quake in Haiti inflicted massive death because poverty magnifies the evil that comes with natural disasters. The San Francisco quake led to few deaths, even with a similar magnitude, because the area is productive and wealthy. And, many of the deaths that did happen were because of failed government policies. For instance, the collapse of  the Cypress Freeway, which killed 42, was built by the state on a landfill that tends to liquefy during an earthquake. That liquefaction, combined with the state’s failure to reinforce known flaws in the highway, directly led to the collapse and the deaths.

Similarly, the other major concentration of destruction was in San Francisco’s Marina District. The Marina District was the site of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which was built by the city on mud flats and wetlands. After the Exposition ended the city then sold the property to developers for housing. It was here that seven buildings collapsed and 63 more were damaged so severely that they had to be torn down. Four died in the Marina District.

The disaster in New Orleans was a similar example. When the government-maintained dikes failed during hurricane Katrina, the city was flooded. The people who suffered were the poor, especially the poor who relied on government mass transit to evacuate them. The better-off fled in their cars. But a huge percentage of citizens didn’t own cars. Randal O’Toole wrote:

“We have heard that 60 percent of New Orleans residents are black, but it has been little noted that a third of those black families do not own a car — nor do 15 percent of white families. It is these people who were left behind when those with cars evacuated.”

O’Toole notes that in previous years, when wealth was lower in the country, death rates from hurricanes were higher. When Galveston was hit by a hurricane in 1900, people couldn’t escape in time because autos didn’t exist. Now major cities can evacuate before a hurricane arrives because people have cars. Even mass transit works better to evacuate people when more people own cars since it is used to evacuate far more manageable numbers.

Policies that destroy wealth creation today mean a poorer world tomorrow, and poverty — not wealth — exacerbates disaster.

  • Jim Peron is the author of Exploding Population Myths (Heartland Institute). He is executive director of the Institute for Liberal Values in Johannesburg, South Africa.