What’s a Disaster?

A Citizen’s Guide to Surviving the Fear Mongers

Many people make big bucks these days scaring you about what’s happening, or about to happen, in the world. The media folks top the list, obviously: the more frightened you are, the more of their content you watch. There’s a second reason why media people exaggerate: the storyteller’s bias. When someone comes rushing back to the cave to tell about the saber-toothed tiger he just saw, the attention and adoration of his listeners depends on the size and ferocity of the tiger. Tell them it was a small, dead tiger, and everyone goes back to sleep.

Special interest groups have an interest in exaggerating danger: the more frightened you are, the more money you will donate to them to fight the looming evil. And politicians, for their part, can’t let any crisis go to waste. For one thing, they are afflicted with the storyteller’s bias: LOOK AT ME! is coded in their DNA. Furthermore, any danger or disaster is an excuse for another government program, so that the whole system of claiming credit, taxing the rich, and putting cousins on the payroll can be taken to a higher level.

To counter these professional fear-mongers, we need an objective guide to the disasters we are likely to face, a scientific ranking that enables us to gauge the harm in each case. The scale proposed below is based on the number of deaths involved; one can assume a proportional economic and environmental harm.

Category 1: One billion or more people killed. This is the kind of disaster that a medium-sized meteorite might cause, like the one that supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs. (You might say that this really ought to be Category 2, and let Category 1 be the meteorite that wipes out the entire population of the world. But if that happened, there wouldn’t be any politicians left to exaggerate anything, and this guide would be unnecessary).

Category 2: One hundred million people killed. The Black Death in Europe in 1330-1351 is estimated to have killed some 75 million. World War II, if you combine all the different wars and genocides taking place in that period, would perhaps fall in this category.

Category 3: Ten million killed. World War I, with 16 million military and civilian deaths, falls in this group.

Category 4: One million killed. An earthquake in China’s Shensi province in 1556 is estimated to have killed 830,000. The 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war claimed around one million lives.

Category 5: One hundred thousand killed. Many recent earthquakes fall in this category, including one in Tangshan, China in 1976 (255,000) and the 2010 Haitian one (170,000). The 2004 Asian tsunami falls here (225,000), as do major hurricanes (cyclones) that hit low-lying Asian regions. A 2008 hurricane in Maynamar killed an estimated 140,000 people.

Category 6: Ten thousand killed. An example is the Galveston hurricane of 1900 that killed an estimated 8,000.

Category 7: One thousand killed. Disasters of this magnitude are rather common, happening more or less every year around the globe. American examples include Hurricane Katrina of 2005 (1,800 killed), the 1889 Johnstown Flood (2,200 killed), and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire (3,000 killed). The Twin Towers attack of 9/11 also falls in this category with 3,000 killed.

Category 8: One hundred killed. These happen practically every week, and include plane, train, and bus crashes, landslides, floods, and industrial accidents and explosions.

Category 9: Few or no people killed, but some harm, or possible harm, to industry, tourism, or the environment. Weather is one cause of these events. Storms, droughts, flooding, freezing and heat waves can have impacts on industries like agriculture, transportation, and tourism. And these same droughts and floods can kill wildlife by the millions. Forest and grass fires can engulf thousands of homes—and slay millions of nature’s creatures. Government actions—taxation, regulation—can produce income loss, unemployment, and crippled industries. Plant closures can impact cities and regions. 

The BP oil spill is one of these category-9 disasters. It involves economic damage, potential job losses, wildlife loss, and spoiled scenery on a scale experienced many times a year around the country. For example, the Nashville flood, which took place at about the same time, involved billions of dollars in damage and killed 31 people. The BP oil spill is not a reason to despair, to go off your diet, or jump off a bridge. The United States will survive and apple pie will be available for sale again when it’s over.

Why is it being treated like a category-3 disaster (which, in case you’ve already forgotten, is a tragedy on a par with World War I)?

Because, as I said, lots of people these days have a vested interest in scaring you to death.

James L. Payne is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Director of Lytton Research and Analysis.
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