Disasters that are caused by mankind can fall into at least two categories. When one thinks of disaster they typically envision something like Titanic, or Chernobyl. But another kind of disaster can be examined of which the effects are still causing death and destruction today. Among this second category are climate change, deforestation, mass famine and disease. Human beings most certainly do affect their environment.
Some would say that the advent of agriculture, which caused desertification and species loss is the most disastrous of human caused events. Others might say religion, which, has been high-jacked by many to assert such things as torture and the Inquisition, loss of native peoples and their culture and even world wars. In this article both kinds of disasters will be discussed, beginning with the first definition.
Events like the Bhopal, India tragedy in 1984 caused upwards of 15,000 human lives. There were even more cases of injury, blindness and organ failure to those who survived. A gas leak and explosion at the Union Carbide plant, which manufactured toxic pesticides, caused the catastrophe.
In 2011, the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing eleven workers. But the death toll due to lasting effects of the leaking oil and the even more toxic dispersant chemicals used to “clean up” are still being tallied. In all, it has been estimated that the leaking oil, which took ninety days to stop flowing; allowed more than 100,000 gallons of oil per day to ooze into the Gulf of Mexico. It destroyed marine life, birds, mammals, and of course human industry and businesses, such as fishing and tourism. The total damage done is still being calculated.
The nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant in March 2011 also still has a rising death toll. Compared to the Chernobyl meltdown in the Ukraine in 1986, ill effects have not risen as high. However, the radiation sickness, destruction to air, land, and living things will take many years to accumulate. Both disasters were failures of safety measures. They both were caused by industry regulations being either ignored, or down played to the general public. At Chernobyl, over 4,000 deaths have been attributed to the meltdown, while at Fukushima, it is still too early to tell. Either way, the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, (which may also be considered “man made” disasters) caused less damage by radioactive contamination.
There are of course, daily disasters which are human caused, that are not so spectacularly shocking. And, then there are events which write tragic lessons upon the pages of history. The sinking of the Titanic, the Hindenburg hydrogen airship crash, the lesser oil spills and nuclear contamination events are many. At the core is the human weakness of hubris which imagines technology and state of the art mechanics are enough to ensure safety. It is no exaggeration to say that there have been many more deaths by plane crash since Hindenburg. Yet, these later disasters are not so painfully etched upon human consciousness for the general public to abandon either flammable fuels or use of fossil fuels for transport, energy and agriculture. They will continue to harm until alternatives are commonplace.
As to the second kind of man-made disasters, long term consequences of ignoring the laws of nature to make short term gains are far reaching. Global warming, the undisputed heating of the planet, has already caused countless deaths due to increased warmer ocean and land temperatures that result in hurricanes, such as Katrina and Sandy, floods, fires, droughts, deforestation, desertification and ocean acidification. Higher prices, the 2008 global financial crisis and on-going disasters are symptoms, not causes, of Earth heating.
The days of fossil fuels are in their sunset years. It remains to be seen whether the man made disasters of the twenty and twenty first centuries will be ameliorated in time. All that is really necessary is for everyone to realize that clean and green energy is really the only affordable option. Once people measure the actual “cost” of continuing with dirty fuels such as coal, gas, and oil, alternatives will be found-and even demanded -by a more educated populace.
Then, the real cost of mining explosions, chemical and nuclear melt downs, destruction of air, water, soils and living ecosystems will slowly abate. All of these unplanned for, and catastrophic side effects of fossil fuels are all things that science, technology and an indomitable human courage can prevent.
Other disasters, such as overpopulation, over-fishing, over harvesting and melting of glaciers will continue to cause mass starvation, wars and resulting epidemics and suffering for some period of adjustment. Human beings, once realized to be responsible, will then have the power to live more harmoniously with sustainable and cooperative interactive lives in the planet with which they evolved.