Forever Trembling on the Brink (Of Numbers)

The extent of the damage and loss of life due to the tsunami has now become clear. Soumen Chakrabarti emailed me and wrote:

You recently wrote:

That is why I claim that natural disasters like the recent tsunami cannot hold a candle to the destructive power of humans.

I did a little arithmetic that adds support to your statement from unexpected quarters. This sounds very insensitive but is not really so. Each and every person destroyed by the tsunami is irreplaceable. I was trying to comprehend the enormity of the destruction through comparative numbers, when I was struck by a yet more stupendous scale that boggled the mind.

CIA 2004 India population slope estimates:

22.8 births per 1000 population per year
8.4 deaths per 1000 population per year
14.4 increase per 1000 population per year

Assume 1G population as a lower bound in 2004, means 14.4M increase per year.

Total loss reported thus far is close to 0.144M, so replacement will take 0.01 year, or less than 4 days, even if only India were “working on it”. Add other countries and the replacement time may be down to three days.

That’s right: the (number of) human lives lost in this terrifying tsunami will be (have been) replaced in three days. Sooner than relief can reach the poor victims.

Of course, all humans are unique, like everyone else, so these are about numbers alone. It is instructive to note that natural disasters cause disproportionate loss of life in the poorer parts of the world. Earthquakes in California kill a few hundred at most compared to the tens of thousands (even hundred thousands) killed in the developing world by similar magnitude events. Floods in the US kill a few tens of people, while floods in Bangladesh kill in the order of hundred thousand.

I believe that the reason for this disparity can be traced to the greater population densities in the poorer parts of the world. Extreme population pressure forces people to live in dangerous areas. The flood plains of the Ganges river delta is not where you would like to live if you had a choice. When tens of millions have no choice but to live in disaster-prone areas, a natural disaster’s direct impact is amplified and hundreds of thousands perish.

Aside from the direct impact of the disaster itself, the second-order effects are also quite acute. The ecological system comprising of people, land, and other resources is always poised at the edge of criticality. Given the unsustainable population, it is forever tottering on the brink. An event like an earthquake or a flood catastrophically disrupts the system. There is little or no spare capacity for the system to absorb the shock and cushion its impact.

Paradoxically, the system persists for the very same reason as that which induces the horrendous losses: excessive population. First, due to the excessive population, people have to live at the edge. Then, a disaster strikes. It kills a small percentage but a very large number. Finally, the system recovers its lost small percentage of people within a very short time and is back to its earlier critical overloaded state.

Will there be a change? I don’t think so. The rich and the powerful aren’t directly affected since they live in safer areas and even when disaster strikes them, they do have the spare capacity to rebuild. Aside from sending in the odd donation following a disaster, the rich get on with their lives. They don’t have an incentive to address the systemic issues. Perhaps a vague sense of guilt moves most of us to contribute to the disaster relief but that just addresses the symptoms, and does nothing to eliminate the underlying causes. While it would be cheaper on the long run to addresses the causes, it is more convenient in the short run to quickly apply a few patches and cover up the cracks. It is the “band-aid” school of disaster management. (I suppose the rich irony of calling fund-raising concerts “band-aid” is lost amid the hysteria that follows a major headline-making disaster.)

It is all Karma, neh?

3 thoughts on “Forever Trembling on the Brink (Of Numbers)

  1. Anurag Thursday January 6, 2005 / 12:08 pm


    While all this philanthropic stuff, donations, relief etal, looks and sounds great on TV, the problem with it is sustainability. Not only in times of disasters, but even normally, “giving” to the “needy” can never lead to sustainable benefits. Rather than focussing on the redistribution of wealth earned by some individuals to people who have not worked for it, or can’t, the focus should be on channelising the latent energies at the bottom of the economic pyramid into wealth creation, for the people (the so called needy) themselves and for the system as a whole. By attempting to help them “selflessly”, we can satisfy our egos but we will only dig a bigger hole for the objects of our effort.


  2. Nirav Friday January 7, 2005 / 2:51 pm

    Great Comment Anurang. The challange is – “How to Give Gracefully”. Meaning, without hurting self-respect, self-esteem, self-confidence of the individual in question. I do not know which of the charitable organizations have this in the center of their efforts.


  3. Uday Friday January 7, 2005 / 7:22 pm

    I’m sorry – I disagree with the above two comments. If the ‘philanthropic stuff’ is indeed going to the most needy and is not being pilfered large scale by people who don’t really need it, it is helping the most needy at a dire and hence very stressful time. There are credible studies that correlate the breakdown of body resistance to stress, and we are all aware of the epidemics that these poor people are now susceptible to. Any and all philanthropic assistance is welcome. Credible aid organizations have asked for money to even out resources and prevent a glut of a few items. I hope anyone reading this excellent blog, who therefore have means way above the national average, have done their part.

    It has been just 11 days and the situation in Andamans is precarious. There is no doubt that with the passage of time we all should influence society towards a solution that seeks to improve the lives of those on the brink. My takeaway from Atanu’s and Soumen’s message is that the primary problem is gross over population. We should treat the cancer not the symptoms, but at this moment money to aid the victims would greatly help!


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