“It is human nature, if not the American way, to look potential disaster in the face and prefer to see a bright and shining lie. The ‘taming’ of this continent, in five centuries and change, required a mighty mustering of cognitive dissonance. As a result, most of us live with the danger of wildfire, earthquake, tornado, flooding, drought, hurricane or yet-to-be-defined and climate-change-influenced superstorm. A legacy of settlement is the delusion that large-scale manipulation of the natural world can be done without consequence.”—Timothy Egan, “A Mudslide, Foretold,” The New York Times, March 30, 2014
As I write this, President Obama was expected to visit today with friends of the victims of last month’s mudslide in Oso, Wash., as well as first responders on the scene. Yesterday, NPR reported that the official death toll from the disaster had risen to 41, with another four people still missing.
You have to ask yourself why an event such as this occurs, particularly, as in this case, where there had been prior worrisome incidents. Perhaps the reason, as discussed in this blog post by David Ropeik for Psychology Today, lies in the “Risk Perception Gap,” or the self-delusional mental calculus that leads people to choose to go on “living in a place they like, but which could kill them.”
My guess is that the only way we will be able to free ourselves from such delusions is if the insurance costs of living in these environmental danger zones became too exorbitant. At that point, the conservative reluctance to have government save people from misfortune will meet the liberal desire to protect the environment, and, at long last, bring about necessary change in where construction is allowed.