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From the oil spill to the financial crisis, why we don’t plan for the worst

This is the title of an article written by Richard Posner which appeared in the Washington Post in early June. The article states that the United States is a nation that is severely unprepared for crises and disasters “the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the latest of several disastrous events for which the country, or the world, was unprepared” (Posner). He then goes on further to state that “ many other risks like this are lying in wait, whether a lethal flu epidemic, widespread extinctions, nuclear accidents, abrupt global warming that causes a sudden and catastrophic rise in sea levels, or a collision with an asteroid” ( Posner).

The author claims that the reason the United States is ill equipped for these types of devastation is because we underestimate the risk of preeminent problems. “If the consequences of the disaster would be very grave, the fact that the risk is low is hardly a good reason to ignore it” (Posner). Those that subscribe to this writer’s ideology that America is somehow sitting silently watching natural disasters occur because they do not asses there risk appropriately, are buying into the logical fallacies of hasty generalization and oversimplification.

The problem of natural disasters and economic crises and the way that they are handled by our government are not as black and white as Richard Posner makes them out to be nor is the evidence that he has provided enough to support his claims. First and foremost, it is irrational to group natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes with man made disasters such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Posner claims that the United States and the world for that matter are unprepared for these natural disasters because they simply do not believe that there risks are high. Is this really true and how could we have been better prepared? According to The United States Geological Service (USGS) “what all seismologists say, earthquakes can only be predicted within a zone of probability. ” Therefore no one can know for certain whether natural devastation is ever going to truly strike and especially not at the exact moment in which it may occur.

The United States government has in no way ignored the risk of danger and has done its best to prepare for emergencies by establishing such as agencies as FEMA who’s mission is “to support our citizens and first responders and to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards” (FEMA). The key word in this mission statement is prepare; the government is constantly making efforts to ready ourselves for any disasters that might strike.

Though nowhere, in Posner’s argument does he mention agencies such as FEMA or the CDC which have been designed to prepare for catastrophes but rather he uses oversimplification to explain these disasters and our government’s response to them. “There is a natural tendency to postpone preventative action against dangers that are likely to occur at some point in the future especially if prevention is expensive, and especially because there is so much to do in the here and now” ( Posner).

This statement is simply the author’s opinion and does not have any factual support as the United States government allocates $5. 8 billion to homeland security and emergency preparedness this year alone. Posner goes on further to use the example of the BP oil spill to support his claim “One difference is that the companies involved must have known that in the event of an accident on a deepwater rig, prompt and effective remedies for an oil leak would be unlikely — meaning that there was no reliable alternative to preventing an accident” (Posner).

Though there is validity in his claim that BP was not prepared to handle this type of disaster, this statement regarding one company has very little to do with how the United States prevents and prepares for disasters. It also provides no factual evidence regarding the spill nor does it explain how the government could have prevented it. One of the other factors that Posner does not seem to take into account is the idea of the world as a network of concerned bodies whose concern, paradoxically, can actually hurt America’s chances for being prepared.

For instance, Charles Cohen and Eric Werker proposed that “the presence of international aid distorts this choice and increases the chance that governments will under-invest. ” In short: the kind of international aid that follows the sorts of disasters that Posner dwells on may is designed to be a safety net to catch nations that are unprepared for a catastrophe.

However, once nations begin counting on the inevitable presence of that safety net, it makes them that much less likely to take measures to prevent it. The BP example that Posner brings up is a good example of this: his risk/reward way of looking at the situation involves the idea that BP’s damage control in the event of an inevitable catastrophe would be less monetarily and politically costly than measures to reduce or eliminate offshore drilling in its entirety and, therefore, they take the risk.

However, Cohen and Werker’s claim further highlights why extrapolating from BP’s mistakes is a poor way to analyze America as a nation: in the eyes of the people, governmental screw-ups or mismanagement means the blame is placed squarely on the government itself (with the exception of the occasional scapegoat). Furthermore, on a national level, America cannot really rely on other nations for its crises. Posner insists on bringing up the economic meltdown, but that example runs counter to his point: America effectively helped bring these other nations down.

They counted on the strength of the American dollar, and they faltered when it faltered. One of Posner’s other rhetorical sins is the seeming inability to really distinguish between natural disasters and man-made catastrophes. There is very little similarity between a volcano and an economic meltdown, save for their relatively low odds of eruption. ” China, of all places, actually has a solid template that the U. S. could follow to avoid the disasters Posner speaks of, both man-made and natural:

In order to mitigate the impact of natural disasters, China has adopted a national policy for strengthening and promoting natural disaster information gathering, prevention, mitigation, and management capabilities. The government has also committed substantial resources for the development of national capabilities and has made considerable advances in natural disaster monitoring, prevention, and management. (“Project Scope and Relationship to China’s Agenda 21”) Why does China have a more effective system in place than America?

Posner thinks it is simply a matter of politics—that no politician wants to upset their limited term on the prevention of a long-shot crisis. However, crises are relatively steady…it is the public’s willingness to assume that they are controllable (and, accordingly, to find a scapegoat) that limits official controls for these crises. Why overhaul the entire system of economics and stock when token corrupt Wall Street barons can be thrown in jail so that others can continue the cycle?

Real disaster prevention seems to lie in the Marxist mandate: the people need to take power back from those who have it, in order to assure that the power is used to keep them safe. Posner raises a number of important issues, but seems to connect the dots in entirely the wrong order. He wishes to paint a picture where disasters can be quantified by cost and likelihood but, simply put, this isn’t going to happen.

What needs to be put into place is an all-purpose system that assumes the worst, regardless of political maneuvering: a non-profit watchdog group that can ride administrations of either stripe until real change occurs. Only then can disasters be truly prevented. Works Cited Cohen, Charles and Eric Werker. “The Political Economy of ‘Natural’ Disasters. ” Web. 16 July 2010 “Project Scope and Relationship to China’s Agenda 21. ” Web. 16 July 2010. Posner, Richard. “From the oil spill to the financial crisis, why we don’t plan for the worst. ” 06 June 2010. Web. 15 July 2010.

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