Monday, October 10, 2005

Death Tolls

It might just be that I've been paying attention to news lately more than ever, but it seems to me there's been a rash of natural disasters in the last year. Tsunami, hurricaines, mudslides, earthquakes, stampedes... not to mention the threat of a flu pandemic. A lot of people are dying.

I had a lecture about the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. (It's also the topic of many recent news articles.) It is estimated that 20-40 million people died of the flu in September and October of that year. So many people died that year that the US average life expectancy in 1918 dropped to 39.1 years, from 50.9 the year before:

I was wondering whether our recent natural disasters might make a similar dent in life expectancy or in the world population. Or, as a dancer commented the other night (paraphrased), "Maybe God is trying to decrease our population."

So I started looking for numbers. It looks like although thousands of people are dying from these recent natural disasters, the numbers just don't compare to death by humans. Wars generally kill 1-100 million people (the worst was WWII). Genocides are also responsible for tens of millions of deaths (we celebrate one of the worst today: the genocide of the Native Americans). 87,000 people died in riots for Tibetian freedom in 1959. That's a lot of people.Comparitively, terrorism, murder, and sacrifice don't even come close: The greatest number of deaths caused by a single act of terrorism was on Septemeber 11, 2001, when just under 3,000 people died. And it's just hard to get large numbers of people to sacrifice themselves these days. It's even harder to murder that many people at once. (About 400 people were murdered as the result of theater arson in Iran, 1978.)

So really, war and genocide are our real human sources of death. How do natural disasters compare?

Earthquakes and tsunamis: Typically fewer than 100,000, no more than 1 million people. About 250,000 people died as a result of the earthquake-led tsunami last year. The only one to kill more was in China in the 16th century, resulting in about 500,000 deaths.

Volcanos: Fewer than 100,000, and also more rare. I guess it's easier to see the threat of a volcano than that of an earthquake. Not too many cities built on top of volcanos.

Weather: Also fewer than 100,000, except for a few cyclones and hurricaines in southern Asia. Recent examples of extreme weather? European heat wave of 2003 killed 35,000; Hurricane Katrina killed a piddling 1,203 according to Wikipedia.

Floods: China has sure had its share of these, killing 100,000 to 400,000 apiece. Yikes.

I'm starting to learn that the US has a pretty sweet climate situation, compared to most of Asia.

Now, I don't think disease should be classified with natural disasters. I'm not quite sure why. But they're different. And they're the real killers:

Smallpox killed over 300 million people in the 20th century alone. That's not counting the Native Americans with the infected blankets.

The Bubonic Plague killed 200 million people.

So far, AIDS has killed 19 million people, but it is estimated that between 36 and 44 million people are living with AIDS, and are therefore reproductively dead. AIDS is undoubtedly the cause of the high mortality rate in African countries.

My point is that natural disasters are the least of our troubles. The biggest killers are wars and viruses. We're supposedly working on vaccines, and we now have antiviral therapy. What can we do about war?

Although I'm a pacifist, I'm increasingly aware of the population explosion and its effects on society and the environment. It is logical to infer that the non-natural disaster deaths are directly related to the population explosion. War is too often motivated by limited natural resources (land, oil, food, etc.). Diseases are transmissible through close contact with large groups of people, causing epidemics. Famine (kills 1 to 43 million people) happens when people have neither farmable land nor weapons.

We try to end hunger by sending food or money. We protest wars on town greens. We fight disease with science (if we can get the funding). But instead of fighting the results, maybe we should focus on the cause. If we could decrease the number of births, maybe we could also decrease the number of deaths.

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