Thursday, March 17, 2011

Putting Disasters in Perspective

Amid heavy media fear mongering over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last summer, James L. Payne published a piece at the Independent Institute entitled "What's a Disaster?A Citizen's Guide to Surviving the Fear Mongers." In it Payne offers some excellent and concise explanations for the perpetual panic attack that is 24-7 media coverage, and proposes an objective scale with a scientific ranking system to help us assess the real damage and magnitude of a disaster.

The scale ranges from a Category 1 disaster to a Category 9. A Category 1 disaster would involve: "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." A Category 9 disaster entails: "Few or no people killed, but some harm, or possible harm, to industry, tourism, or the environment."

Payne argues that "the BP oil spill" was merely a Category 9 disaster consisting of "economic damage, potential job losses, wildlife loss, and spoiled scenery on a scale experienced many times a year around the country." The scale is most certainly anthropocentric, but we have no problem with that here at The Humble Libertarian where our primary political criterion is human liberty and our primary ethical criterion is human happiness.

Payne's scale is one we will be using in the future here to gauge the magnitude of disasters and I propose that we formalize the use of the scale by christening it "The Payne Scale" -and yes, I am aware of the morbid pun inherent in the title's false cognate. Applying the scale to events in Japan following its catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, it is easy to see how lopsided the media's attention is.

The damage that the 9.0 magnitude earthquake caused to roads, buildings, and other infrastructure could have easily claimed over a hundred thousand lives if early reports and death toll estimates are accurate. As relief efforts continue and a clear picture of the damage emerges from the chaos in Japan, we will have a better idea of the cost in human lives, but using what we know as of the publication of this article, the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, as the disaster is being called, ranks a Category 5 on the Payne Scale.

According to Payne, a Category 5 disaster entails:

"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."

Yet despite the horrifying toll of human lives in the aftermath of this disaster, the mainstream media has been relatively unconcerned about Japan's earthquake victims compared to its obsessive fixation on the struggle to prevent the Fukushima nuclear power plant from going into a full meltdown.

Even if Fukushima were to go into full melt down and send radioactive nuclear waste from its core into the atmosphere, if the Chernobyl disaster- the worst nuclear power accident in history- is any indication, the Fukushima meltdown would rank an 8 or at most, a 7 on the Payne Scale. If that seems not far off from the Category 5 magnitude of the initial earthquake and tsunami strike, remember that the scale is logarithmic.

Does this lopsided coverage make any sense? Is it fair to the victims of the earthquake? Does it give viewers a more complete and accurate understanding and perspective on what is happening in Japan? Or is it a cynical attempt to incite fear among the American populace and harness that fear for ratings and profit, not to mention an agenda-driven excoriation of nuclear power in the court of public opinion for something a natural disaster caused?

Then again, this is something we should have expected from a media that treated Charlie Sheen's Category 9 meltdown like a Category 1 apocalypse. Stay classy, media.


Wes Messamore,
Editor in Chief, THL
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