How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe's Path from the Caribbean to Siberia

Anyone following the news these days sees far too many disasters:  from wildfires to typhoons, mega-rain storms to landslides, tornados to earthquakes. This book examines how humans react to disasters, what is causing them, and what the future may bring.

Written by the father/son team of Stan and Paul Cox, this book looks at twelve major disasters in depth including some still in progress. The chapter “Atlantis of the Americas” covers the flooding of Miami, Fl. that happens now even on clear days, and is expected to eventually make the city uninhabitable.

In “Gray Goo: East Java, Indonesia,” the Coxes examines an event that caused massive amounts of mud to erupt over what was once a crowded middle class area.  The authors believe that a mining operation triggered this extremely destructive mud volcano. As in many disasters, the authors show how the government got stuck with a huge bill while powerful companies got off the hook.

They also detail the highly destructive 2013 fire season in Australia where the fire was so intense it even jumped over water to destroy homes and whole swathes of the beautiful Blue Mountain forest.

One surprising post-disaster scenario occurred in L’Aquila, Italy after a 6.3 earthquake struck the heart of their historical city.  Seven scientists and engineers were charged with manslaughter and given prison sentences for not warning city residents of the forthcoming earthquake.  Yes, you’re right. How could they possibly know what day it would strike? Though six of the seven did not have to serve their sentences, one of the men did.

The authors also describe Italy’s policy of not razing destroyed historical buildings which leads to years—even decades—of reconstruction. Parts of the old city in L’Aquila are almost a ghost town because renovation can’t commence until there is money to pay for it. 

But the Coxes don’t just share dramatic stories of what horrors have happened and almost inevitably occur. They look at the nature of community in recovery.  After these cataclysmic events, disasters forge solidarity among community members, and often break down rigid class structures. For a while, people work together for the common good. This is one good event that comes after disasters that governments and agencies should encourage and develop more, according to the authors.

In the epilogue they say that humans need to live “resiliently” in what is becoming a more chaotic, very populated world. They also ask who will be deciding, how we should adapt, and what things we should fight to keep. They strongly insist that the marginalized and vulnerable should be making these decisions, as well as those in power, especially since they are usually the first and most deeply affected.

A fascinating read.