In 2017 I went to Yogyakarta, Indonesia to learn about disaster relief in a small city in the shadow of the country’s most active volcano. Mt. Merapi last erupted in 2010, blanketing the city in an inch of ash and killing 353 people. Endro, a young man who has been a voluntary search and rescue worker ever since that eruption, told me about the drills and practice excursions that fill his weekends. He loved Yogyakarta and, like many who live there, he praised the volcano for the ultra-fertile land it produced, as well as its mystical and sacred qualities.
“You know,” he told me, “Indonesia’s volcanoes are important. You wouldn’t have Frankenstein without us.” It took me a minute to make the imaginative leap he was inviting, but he was right. It was the eruption of Indonesia’s Mt. Tambora in 1815 that created the infamous “Year Without a Summer” in Europe. Those ashy skies trapped Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron indoors for most of their holiday on Lake Geneva in Switzerland and created the perfect conditions for 19-year-old Mary to write her debut novel.
Some natural disasters have this kind of imprint, literally coloring the world; our planet is small and densely connected. But most disasters don’t have such an obvious impact. I thought about Endro and Mt. Tambora last month when the Anak Krakatau, or the “Child of Krakatoa,” volcano erupted in Indonesia, where I lived for two years. It was torturous to watch the disaster unfold on screens. One clip showed a rock band that was performing on a beach get swept away mid-set by a tidal wave; all but one of its members died.
But what could I do about the volcano’s resulting horrors besides replay them online? Was I paying special attention to what was happening in Indonesia because I had lived there, or because it often only makes the news when disaster strikes it? And does simply caring about a natural disaster count for anything if you can’t help alleviate its attendant suffering in a concrete way?
This isn’t to draw out a rhetorical question. I think we should — and that most people instinctively do — care about any natural disasters that affect humans. For instance, more than half of all young adults age 18 to 28 in America donated to Hurricane Katrina relief in 2005. What I wondered, rather, was about the ethical and philosophical consensus on enacting the giving impulse, especially in an age in which disasters are broadcast so widely, and occuring with increasing frequency and severity due to climate change.
Natural disasters and the idea of “natural evil” have long vexed philosophers. I often think of Voltaire’s “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster” when watching disaster footage. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 hit the Portuguese capital on All Saints’ Day, November 1 and killed a fifth of its population. On top of the earthquake and tsunami, multiple fires broke out from candles lit around the city to celebrate the holiday, burning people in their hospital beds. The quake left Lisbon’s red-light district intact but destroyed most of its churches. Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Kant, and Rousseau perceived it as a visceral shattering of faith and reason itself, rejecting the Church’s attribution of it to divine judgment.
“Tranquil spectators…You research in peace the cause of thunderstorms, But your calmness will vanish when you feel its fury,” wrote Voltaire, which echoes the feeling of reading scientific postmortems of how a natural disaster happened, about its underlying tectonic or weather factors, but feeling like it’s a little beside the point compared to its impact on human victims.
There is something about disasters that invites an irrational personalization in reaction to them. Even in Buddhist ethics — which take natural disasters as part of the world’s ubiquitous suffering — there is a moral imperative to help victims of meaningless adversity. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, there were various Buddhism-inflected recovery efforts rooted in values like compassion and resilience.
For most of us, reacting to natural disasters entails only one thing: donating money (you should probably just never send physical supplies. But donations, too, are complicated by politics, geography, and inequality. Followers of Effective Altruism, the new-wave philanthropic social movement that tries to link charitable giving with data and measurable results, argue that it’s simply not worth donating to natural disaster relief at all. The marginal returns on any one person’s contribution to immediate disaster relief are tiny, per the Oxford philosopher William MacAskill, who has argued that a $1,000 donation to hurricane victims in the U.S. could, for instance, be redirected to double the annual income of a family in rural Kenya.
There’s no “tidy formula” for reacting to a natural disaster, Ted Lechterman, who researches the philosophy of philanthropy at the University of Frankfurt, told me. But he said that, given the overall chaos that trails such events, “Just trying to pitch in where you see an unmet need is generally a morally safe strategy.” He emphasized giving money to charities with “no strings attached,” instead of pegging it to a specific service they provide or even a specific disaster, so that the organization can decide how best to use the funds.
Most Americans donate within six weeks of a natural disaster, but that pattern broke for Hurricane Katrina, when there were more donations at the six-month mark than two months out, perhaps due to the sustained news attention on the Bush administration’s mishandling of the crisis. Many organizations can benefit from extra funds three, six, or 12 months after a disaster hits. The net impact of delaying donating to disaster relief could be particularly meaningful if many people changed their behavior.
“The problem isn’t with memory — it is with emotions,” the behavioral economist Dan Ariely wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2015c. “Every time we see those televised images of disaster, our emotions get ignited, we care, and we want to act. But over time, our emotions inevitably subside, and we stop caring.” With this in mind, you could set a calendar alert right after a disaster strikes to remind you to donate based on a passing emotional reaction in the near future.
Every choice you make in giving money to disaster relief has trade-offs. Large, international humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross are more experienced with receiving sudden influxes of cash and have the infrastructure to support such infusions, so if you want to donate in the immediate aftermath of an event, they are a decent option. On the other hand, they usually get massive donations from institutional donors, making your dollars a drop in their bucket.
If you want to take the Effective Altruism’s cue, you could channel the emotional giving impulse generated by a disaster toward an unrelated and unglamorous but well-reviewed cause, such as deworming schoolchildren — a favorite example of the movement — or toward a more intractable, long-term relief effort like those for the Rohingya in Myanmar or the Yemeni people affected by the country’s starvation crisis. This way, our emotional responses thus become not an irrational problem to be solved, but a useful impulse to be harnessed.
These are all suggestions of what to do if you care. The other half of the equation is: how do we expand the field of disasters that we “care” about? In the past, you might only realize a volcano had erupted in the tropics if the sky suddenly turned blood-red, like Norway’s did when Edvard Munch painted The Scream in 1883; his painting reflected the bizarre skies — lavender suns, glow-in-the-dark clouds — of Europe after Krakatoa erupted. (Anak Krakatau, which erupted last month, emerged from the caldera, or hollow crater, created by Krakatoa’s collapse in 1883.) But today, there seem to be too many disasters to care about, and clearly some disasters matter more than others — because they are more news-friendly, or their location more familiar. Name recognition is at a premium. Many people grasped that the 2004 tsunami hit “India” but maybe not “the Seychelles” and last month’s “Krakatoa” rang some bells due to its historical precedent, unlike “Sulawesi,” the obscure island where a much larger tsunami killed at least 1,700 Indonesians last October.
The problem with attention is not just personal. There is a real onus on news media to cover international disasters more, and more equitably.
“One of the trickiest ethical questions is the way news editors in the Northern hemisphere measure the lives of those in the South, i.e., are they valued equally?” Chris Elliott, director of the Ethical Journalism Institute, told me. “Is there more coverage if Westerners die than if non-Westerners die? Sadly, in the past, a train crash in India would not make the same amount of space as an earthquake in Italy. I think that balance is shifting in a fairer way, but there is still more to do.”
Elliott added that journalism about natural disasters cannot include prominent calls for donations, but “it is a really sensible thing for news organizations to put the appeal in italics at the bottom of a feature as an act of utility and a service to the readers.” The more ethical way of doing this is by citing an umbrella group of charities, like the U.K.’s Disasters Emergency Committee, but, said Elliott, “it's much more difficult when individual NGOs have separate appeals – how do you favor one over the other? You are back in dangerous territory then.” Again, there are infinite nested choices to make.
We should also be aware of the plastic-straw phenomenon: that the effect of individual choice, no matter how well-intentioned, is miniscule compared to the impact of corporate and state actors. “Earthquakes don't kill people; falling buildings do,” wrote the Dutch philosopher Thomas Wells in 2017, “and whether buildings fall on people depends on which polity they live in more than it depends on how close they live to an active fault line.” It seems relevant to mention that some rich people today react to disasters like wildfires by funding things like private militias.
The biggest actors (i.e. states) actually can make things better. In Bangladesh, improvements in early warning systems and shelters reduced cyclone-related deaths by 100-fold in just 50 years.Japan, which thoroughly renovated its urban infrastructure after the Tokyo earthquake of 1923, celebrates “Disaster Prevention Day” nationwide, and has the world’s most-sophisticated earthquake-detection system. Tiny Cuba is a world leader in hurricane preparedness.
Which brings us to the efforts of the U.S., the country with the world’s largest GDP and most powerful military. When Anak Krakatau erupted in December, the U.S. Geological Survey had stopped tracking global seismic activity due to the government shutdown.
“Due to a lapse in appropriations, the majority of USGS websites may not be up to date and may not reflect current conditions,” the agency’s website read. America’s track record, even after the unqualified debacle of Hurricane Katrina, remains awful: we don’t even know the death toll — 3,000? 5,000? — of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. The island received the thinnest veneer of federal aid and largely disappeared from the news cycle after the key photo ops, like Trump throwing paper towels at the victims, passed.
“What makes the ethics of disaster relief so complex is the failure at the international level to set up a system for managing natural disasters,” Lechterman said. “It would be much fairer, more effective, and more efficient if there were global disaster response protocols” for disaster relief, instead of a “patchwork of private organizations with various levels of competence.” He suggested advocating for better disaster-prevention policies from one’s government as another potential action available to concerned individuals. Which, to me, sounds like an appendix to the very long list of suggestions I could lob at my elected officials. But he’s right; it is an option.
There is no perfectly rational response to natural disasters, which is why they are sometimes called “acts of God.” A devastating series of earthquakes in 2011 in well-developed Christchurch, New Zealand reversed a half-century of secularization and led to a three-percent increase in religiosity. It is not all knowable.
Over time, more of the world will likely have to get comfortable with the mindset familiar to people who have lived in the “Ring of Fire” for thousands of years.
“England has a history of apocalyptic literature… whereas in Java, there is an 11th-century inscription that says, more or less, ‘the apocalypse happened so we moved the court east,’” Alex West, who researches medieval Southeast Asian history at Leiden University, and runs the delightful Twitter account @medievalindonesia, told me. He referred to the Pucangan stone inscription from the court of the Javanese king Airlangga around 1016 AD, which somewhat casually mentions a pralaya, or disastrous event, and takes it in reasonable stride.
The point is that there are many ways to think about disasters. In Sulawesi, just days after the awful tsunami, locals improvised cafes among the rubble to serve people who were still searching for their loved ones and belongings. What may seem like the end of the world never really is that, and there are no fully lost causes, which is good news for everyone who is still paying attention.