Today, disaster. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
I've been thumbing through
Roger Smith's 1992 book on Catastrophes and
Disasters. It's really sobering to see what
the great calamities have done to us through
The smallest section is on epidemics. Smith lists
only three illnesses, but nothing else touches them
for sheer destruction. They are: bubonic plague,
WW-I influenza, and AIDS. We don't have accurate
numbers for the fourteenth-century plague but, by some estimates, it
killed a third of the people in Europe and Asia.
The influenza epidemic is oddly minimized in our
minds — perhaps because we now live with, and
survive, all kinds of flu. It broke out during the
last days of WW-I, and killed around twenty million
people by 1920. Third on the list is the AIDS
pandemic. At this writing, it has killed almost as
many people as the influenza epidemic did, and it's
certain to surpass it.
All this might suggest that biological warfare
threatens comparable damage. However, it's harder
than one may think to create exact conditions in a
disease and its host, needed to start an epidemic.
And we've enormously improved our ability to combat
disease. Witness the speed with which we brought
SARS under control.
Now and then storms and floods do spectacular
damage. The earliest one we know about occurred
when an inlet from the Mediterranean broke through
into what's now the Black
Sea. That was 7500 years ago — maybe the same
flood mentioned in Genesis. It increased the sea's
area by a third, and it killed a lot of people
Other floods and storms have had terrible effects.
America's worst, the Galveston
Flood, caused six thousand deaths. But it was
small potatoes compared to repeated floods of China's Yellow River.
They've killed as many as a million people at once.
Most of the famous disasters — the Titanic, the Chicago Fire, and shuttle explosions — were small
in comparison. But the loss of a space shuttle does
for us what the influenza epidemic can no longer
do. It brings loss down to individuals. It puts a
human face upon the vastness of human suffering.
Missing from the book are war and genocide. They
are right up there with the great epidemics — the
Holocaust, the Nazi murder of Slavic peoples, and
Stalin's murder of his own people. There's nothing
about the Khmer Rouge or the Armenian slaughter.
Nor does the book deal with direct death in war, or
It all grows too large to grasp. A friend in a car
accident is real; Anne Frank is real.
Millions-of-strangers is too abstract for anyone's
mind to digest. That's especially clear when we
read the section on mega-deaths by famine. You or I
would do everything in our power to save one of
those lives. But a million?
So this book is grim at first. Then we realize it's
about ourselves. We're all going to die when we
don't expect to, whether by heart attack or
hurricane hardly matters. Either way, each hour of
life is a gift to enjoy, before the tornado
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
R. Smith, Catastrophes and Disasters. New
York: Chambers, 1992.
UH economist Tom deGregori deals extensively with
our capability for anticipating and countering
famine, disease, and other natural disaster. See,
e.g.: T. R. deGregori, Bountiful Harvest:
Technology, Food Safety, and the Environment.
Washington, DC: Kato Institute, 2002 (This is a new
edition of Agriculture and Modern Technology: A
Defense. Iowa State Press: a Blackwell Pub.