Sandy: The Dollar Value of Your Life

I grew up in Camden (405 Kaign Avenue), my grandmother’s house and Philadelphia (3228 N. 15th Street) and I, too, love the Jersey shore.

As an older person, having witnessed over time many natural events, I am constantly amazed at development that seems to ignore or forget these things, building in flood plains and along the shorelines, where in my own memory weather, earthquakes and other events of predictable magnitude have demonstrated the risks.

Recently, I read in a compendium of articles written by Malcolm Gladwell for the New Yorker magazine about a principle called, Homeostasis of Risk. It appears that we learn to live with a degree of risk such that, for instance, when ABS brakes were deployed, the result was that people drove faster and the frequency of road accidents and fatalities remained constant, and in fact, only when perceived risk was higher do frequencies of “accidents” decrease. This definitely applies to development. The population increases, engineering technology for infrastructure advances and following a bell curve more or less, people take greater risks–regarding the probabilities of storm effects, etc. No way in hell do we have the infrastructure in Southern California, where I live, that could support critical needs of the border population in the event of a major storm, flood, earthquake or epidemic.

While my hands, heart and assets are available to assist those in need, I find it strange when actors pretending to be journalists expect us to take the media circus known as a presidential election seriously while the government spends billions on military efforts that are historically losers and a space program attempting to find signs of intelligent life elsewhere while unable to unambiguously define intelligent life, while in the meantime, pretending that accommodating economic growth in itself will deal with a burgeoning human population at risk of predictable natural and manmade disasters that must eventually be economically unsupportable. We see these things like Katrina, Sandy and Fukushima happening with increasing numbers and never establish economic reserves to deal with them while allowing those who profit from financing risk prone development based on risk analysis that places a dollar value on our lives. Dollar value of your life. Can you actually hear that? Dollar value of your life.

In a recent Scientific American, an engineer, who had predicted Sandy and all of its effects, described in terms of things people and communities are now suffering, concluded with the advice that the problem is that development in America is overseen locally by “home rule”, in which local politics and thus local developers determine how land is used. In California, this approach to land use planning is codified in the General Plan Law, which is typical of all states and is the only way development can occur. State and federal regulation attempts to set standards, however, when the taxpayer picks up the cost of disasters, local developers and the financial institutions that funded them are insured against the damages resulting from their ventures.

After I wrote about this in a book called, Architectronics, I attempted to see what could be done locally and I became a developer and learned that the problem is not solvable at the federal or state level since ALL politics is local and thus, there is no alternative to home rule. Regulations serve the purpose of setting the terms for taxpayer funded bailouts but do not prevent stupid development. At the moment, this kind of development is rampant in North Dakota, associated with fracking around the headwaters of primary water systems for the continent. Parts of Europe and Scandinavia present a better model for development where populations have learned that the only way to deal with the combination of homeostasis of risk and greed is to arbitrarily limit new opportunity since the title to open land is in the crown rather than a democratic state. Unfortunately, energy development is not so controlled and the amount of nuclear waste collecting around Europe surpasses all expectations and discussing this threatens the economy. China’s brown cloud is also now obscuring the European sun, the sea is rising to swamp the Netherlands and Venice and the issue of energy sources presents catastrophic risk.

Given that you will probably see more nuclear power plants developed in high risk areas and we are ignoring the issue of nuclear waste products and given Fukushima, Sandy and Katrina are the tip of the iceberg.

It is noble when unrelated people help each other when there are meltdowns but to continue to allow our governments and media to ignore the problem is to guaranty that future disasters will have greater impact–they simply must, as development driven by economic ambition puts even more people at greater risk.

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