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The American Disasterscape

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Like the tremendous devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, the California wildfires are the product not just of nature's wrath, but of decades of accumulating, short-sighted decision-making by human beings.

America has always been about the freedom and danger of the frontier. There may no longer be a western frontier, but today's developers and homeowners are determined to recreate their own Disneyfied version of it wherever they can. That new frontier is along the beach, or stretching up into the mountains, or California's "suburban/wildland interface" where the fires are jumping from forests into subdivisions. Development of all kinds in these risky areas has exploded over the last generation, often subsidized, directly or indirectly, by governments.

Even absent the hard-to-predict local effects of global warming, this is just asking for trouble. Building in hurricane alley, a floodplain, or a wildfire zone is a double roll of the dice -- you bet that you won't get hit, and that the federal government and insurance companies will swoop in, rescue you and ultimately bail you out if you do. There are many places that look prosperous and peaceful, but are actually poised uncomfortably on this brink. Inevitably, some get pushed over. The result is more mega-disasters, with their searing images, loss of life and property, and mushrooming fiscal and economic impacts.

Obviously, nature is wrathful and unpredictable -- and with global climate change, getting more so. Yet Americans have an annoying habit of ignoring the potential for disaster until ... after disaster strikes.

What's the solution? One challenge is, this is a collective problem -- no one individual, agency, or lobby is to blame for it. It's everybody's problem, and nobody's. Global warming is part of it, but let's face it, carbon offsets and other big, long-term policy fixes won't do much to address this problem, which is fundamentally an issue of social and economic policy -- and which is after all, happening right now.

To solve it, you need political leadership. Economic incentives that encourage the courtship of risk have to change. Governments need to junk their old paradigms and reach over and around bureaucratic walls. Nobody thinks of Katrina and the wildfires as the same phenomenon -- yet they are.