Hurricane Sandy recently swept across the Atlantic, causing widespread economic damage and loss of life. While the death toll in the United States was slightly higher than that of any of the Caribbean nations in Sandy’s path, it is difficult to compare the figures given that the storm struck different countries with different population densities at different stages of intensity. But one thing is certain: Sandy’s impact on the United States could have been far worse.
Damage to the U.S. was significant, but much less severe than damage caused by hurricanes in the past century. In fact, studies show that hurricane deaths have decreased steadily since 1950 in the U.S., despite growing coastal populations. Storms have not gotten less severe in the last 60 years, and some critics even argue that they have gotten worse. So why have overall deaths decreased? As Daniel Sutter of the Competitive Enterprise Institute reports:
International research has found strong support for an inverse relationship between income and national disaster fatalities. Satellites, radar, and hurricane hunter aircraft now detect tropical cyclones at sea, and improved forecasts allow evacuation prior to landfall. Indeed, the majority of hurricane fatalities occur in freshwater flooding, often inland, which demonstrates the life-saving effects of hurricane warnings and response. A repeat of the destruction of Galveston, Texas, in 1900, by a hurricane that struck without warning, seems inconceivable today.
In short, the reason the United States is better equipped to withstand catastrophic storms is because of the industrial developments made possible by its capitalist economic system. The storm hit areas that were not filled with shacks but with sophisticated structures that in large part survived the storm. People had stable structures in which to take refuge. Nearly everyone in the United States has a cellular phone, which those affected by the storm could use to contact emergency resources and their loved ones. Widespread access to the internet enabled thousands to access information about the severity of the incoming storm, where to find safe housing and emergency supplies, and how to stay safe if they chose to weather the storm at home. Ubiquitous car ownership allowed many to escape the most dangerous storm zones. All of these are products of industrial progress.
Especially when many are now calling for restrictions on the industrial development that they think is responsible for “climate change” and more dangerous hurricanes, it is crucial to recognize the life-saving value of industry. Industry allows us to actively modify the environment to suit human interests. Whether we consider the vast array of plentiful food it furnishes us, the fuel we need to commute to work or escape a storm, or the smart phones that bring us instant information, capitalistic industry enables human beings to improve their environment for achieving their purposes. Industrial progress enables us not only to develop the tools we need to survive in the face of the elements , but also to be comfortable and flourish in our daily lives.
We could choose to “coexist” with nature, i.e. to refrain from intervening in the natural order. But then we would be at nature’s mercy and suffer the consequences: severe natural disasters are but a single example. The rational alternative is to take a more active role. We have the ability to actively augment the environment in order to benefit human interests. We should embrace this alternative. Our capacity to alter our environment for the better, rather than merely adapt to it, is a uniquely human capacity and the hallmark of our existence.
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