Earth has entered an era in which one species has the power to alter the planetary equilibrium. Recent natural catastrophes reveal some degree of modification in our planet’s machinery. But they also, and especially, reveal the inadaptation of our society to these new conditions.
Hi, if you are reading this message, you are in the anthropocene, the period during which human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
In a previous article, we were explaining how our global alterations in the planet’s regulating mechanisms reinforces extreme weather events. Globally, humanity has become a large enough force to alter major natural balances. This is confirmed every day by progress in satellite imagery, climatological models calculation methods, and other ninja techniques that we won’t go into now.
Have we, by mistake or by looking the other way, created the conditions for a backlash from nature?
Hurricane Harvey, which wreaked havoc over Houston region, broke records of rainfall and intensity in Texas. In Mexico DF, schools, apartment buildings from the 1970s construction boom tragically collapsed on their occupants.
Despite tighter building codes, inflation, and infinitely more precise alarm systems, damage from natural catastrophes has skyrocketed. And are expected to continue to rise by a whooping 70% by 2070. It’s no surprise, given the explosion of both population and constructed land in risky areas.
And these risky areas have also been the ones experiencing the great acceleration the hardest.
Parts of the Texas coastline, particularly near Houston, are some of the fastest growing places in the country, +50% or more since 2000. pic.twitter.com/rh3vR0ZoSS
— Eric Holthaus (@EricHolthaus) August 24, 2017
For example, Houston’s coastal areas have been some of the fastest growing places in the US. A 50% population increase since 2000 transformed large swaythes of forests and risky marshland into apartment buildings and offices.
The same story applies in Bangladesh, Lagos, or the French Riviera. Areas at risk of flooding, earthquake, and even eruption were built, with the more-or-less tacit agreement of local authorities, and under the very real pressure of population increase.
The importance of natural barriers
Buildings did not just appear on bare ground like a mushroom on a forgotten vegetable. To make space for huge constructions and beaches and infrastructures, promoters replaced other elements of scenery like trees, mangroves, hillside vegetation and such. Only these so-called superfluous elements of environment were the key to our resilience to these events. And the fabric of our ecosystems too.
The replacement of forests and other natural protective barriers can be a disaster in and of itself. Because of natural degradation, extreme phenomena hit humans more directly, and its consequences are much longer lasting. Countless studies have proved what seems obvious: nature is our best protection against nature.
“Haiti, which has been stripped of trees, remains a cautionary tale. The difference between the lush forests in the Dominican Republic and the rocky hillsides on the other side of Hispaniola in Haiti is clear. Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 caused 19 deaths in the Dominican Republic and hundreds in Haiti.”
-Rights and Resources, reforestation NGO
If we were to put a price tag on all the services provided by nature — and that includes shelter for storm, and potentially a coconut tree life saving refuge during a storm surge, urbanism plans would be quite different (See our deep-dive into ecosystem services to know it all).
The chance to rebuild
A weakened ecosystem is also more vulnerable to extreme weather events, that could deliver the fatal blow to endangered species, or fragile environments. Thankfully, the beautiful thing about living organisms is that they can grow again.
More extreme weather events multiplied by vulnerability create dangerous environments, for ecosystems as a whole.
In some ancient cultures, floods were considered a sign of the Gods to redirect their way of life. It is even believed (and very recent archeological findings have confirmed) that imperial China was born out of the reconstruction of a mythical flood of the Yellow River.
We can’t rewrite the past, but we can build the future. More natural catastrophes will break on our shores, and bring destruction to peaceful cities. But our potential, as demonstrated paradoxically by our delusions of grandeur, hints that we can build better, safer human settlements, that benefit from nature rather than have to endure it.