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Michael Hiltzik: The Texas crisis reminds us that 'natural' disasters are almost always manmade

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Mother Nature certainly has been coming in for a heaping share of damnation in recent months.

As if the pandemic wasn't enough, there were the wildfires in California and the deep freeze in Texas. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives and property damages run into the billions.

The prospect of more of the same or worse bulks large on the horizon. Starvation, civil unrest and political disorder seem to be all that nature bequeaths us.

Yet she's getting a bad rap. The truth is that while nature sets the stage for disasters, they're almost all manmade.

The human habit of blaming nature for our own failures isn't new. It's a common theme in explanations of famines, for example, which are customarily attributed to droughts or crop failures. Those factors are generally present in famines, but they don't cause famines by themselves. Famine, as relief experts understand, is manmade.

"Drought doesn't kill people, politics does," William Garvelink, a disaster specialist involved in Somalia relief for the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), told me in 1992, during a famine in Somalia.

 

Famine can be created by misguided government policies that restrict the movement of food or disturb traditional practices.

In Ethiopia in the 1980s, Mengistu Haile Mariam's regime required that all agricultural surplus be turned over to the state for sale — at fixed prices. Farmers were denounced as hoarders just for following the traditional practice of storing grain.

Transporting grain across provincial lines was illegal; Mengistu showed his disdain for the country's agricultural traders — the middlemen who kept the grain flowing — by having many of them shot as speculators.

When drought struck the country's north in 1983, there was little available farm surplus and no way to move it from thriving regions to dry ones. The result, the epic famine of 1984-85, was popularly attributed to a lack of food; in truth, it was a manmade failure of markets.

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