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Safe and snug – relatively speaking

January 13, 2010

The major story since yesterday evening has been the earthquake in Haiti – and it’s a story that seems to be getting worse by the hour. I think my reaction was similar to many people’s, something along the lines of “Not Haiti!” You don’t want it to happen anywhere, but Haiti is so desperately poor to begin with… though just yesterday afternoon, Tyler Cowen eerily posted some good news about the Haitian economy. The good news was fleeting.

Haiti has a strange and sad mystique about it. It was once St. Domingue, the legendary jewel of the West Indies, with its awesomely abundant sugar and coffee plantations. Then the French cut all the trees down, planted more sugar, erosion washed all the fertile soil away, there was a bloody slave uprising against Napoleon… and not much good has happened since.

Here in Canada, we have a strange relationship with Haiti – we’ve long been a little embarrassed about having this desperately poor nation in our back yard, There was a coup not long ago, and some people apparently think that our government was involved(??). Our Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, was born in Haiti – she’s even famous for coming from Haiti.

I don’t have much else prepared to say about Haiti today, but I’m compelled to look homeward – specifically, to the weirdness of living in Toronto. Weird in that, we’re a massive urban centre that is almost completely insulated from the forces of nature.

Earthquakes? I’m guessing that they are the most destructive force on the planet. In the past 12 months we’ve had the Sichuan Earthquake that killed close to 100,000 people, and now this one in Haiti. And of course it was an earthquake that caused the giant 2004 tsunami. There are many heavily populated areas that sit on fault lines, most obviously in Asia and the west coast of North America.

In the 34 years I have lived here, there have been dozens of reported tremors, but I’ve never felt a single one. No threat from tsunamis either, obviously.

No volcanos. It looked as though the Mayon volcano in the Philippines was going to have a major eruption, although it seems to be calming. There have also been recent eruptions in the DR Congo and Ecuador.

I think we average one hurricane per century. The last one caught us unprepared and was a traumatic event, but obviously hurricanes are not nearly the threat here that they are in coastal areas.

Tornados? We get them occasionally. Several struck the GTA last summer, killing one person and doing some major damage. But deaths are rare, certainly nothing like what the Midwest gets.

Major flooding? Not unless a hurricane strikes, and even then nothing like this. Or this.

We occasionally get big snowstorms, but we’re (usually) pretty good at dealing with that (Buffalo actually gets far more snow that Toronto does). We get some cold snaps, but nothing like what the folks in Edmonton have to deal with.

We have no tropical diseases – no malaria or ebola or anything like that. Our animals are mostly harmless; we have one poisonous snake, but it’s not doing very well.

I dunno, what else… I guess we’re as vulnerable as anyone to an asteroid strike. I’m sure that there are other places around the world that are equally well insulated… but even New York is theoretically threatened by rising sea levels.

I’m immensely proud if this city and this country – our incredibly high standard of living, our democratic institutions, our resilient economu – and of course the people who live and have lived here deserve a great deal of the credit. But it’s worth remembering that we’re more than a little lucky; Mother Nature is a mighty force that causes a lot of death and destruction around the world, and it’s just not something that we normally have to worry about.

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