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Disasters are becoming less and less natural


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The Conversation

Loris de Nardi

researcher Marie Curie in the Institute for Culture and Society (ICS), University of Navarra

Turkey, Greece, Italy and Spain, like every summer, are burning. Hundreds of hectares have been burning since the beginning of the summer, adding to those already burnt to ash. Nothing exceptional considering that the Mediterranean climate is prone to fires because of its dense vegetation and dry summers.

There is evidence of plants that colonized the terrestrial environment that today are fossil coals that feed the fires. Are fires something normal, then? Unfortunately, no. The vast majority are caused by human actions. However, in recent decades, something has changed. Fires have become more extensive and destructive due to climate change, population growth and the development of urbanization, which in turn determined the withdrawal of the rural environment.

In Spain, for example, it is estimated that 96% of large fires of known cause are result due to human malpractice. In addition, "there are more and more large forest fires that burn areas of more than 500 hectares. They are extremely serious, with deaths, massive evictions, loss of property and thousands of hectares burned," explain Greenpeace Spain, although there is a smaller issue, more hectares are burned.

Symptoms of the Anthropocene

The fires that are currently worrying several communities in the Mediterranean basin because of their exceptional extent and voracity, as they did last year in the Amazon and on the Australian continent, are directly attributable to the intervention of people in the planetary dynamics.

In fact, forest fires - as well as increasingly frequent and destructive hurricanes - are clear signs that we are living in the Anthropocene. This geological era is characterized by the significant global impact that human activities are having on terrestrial ecosystems.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, our species - as a geomorphological force - has transversely and disproportionately altered all physical processes on the planet. It has done so through the extraction and use of fossil fuels and the relentless increase in industrial productivity, as well as through continuous population growth, among other processes.

Living in the Anthropocene means that humanity is the geological factor that is intervening in the lithosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere. It is thus causing abrupt changes, for example, in climate, in the shaping of the natural environment and in biodiversity.

Changes in the forest and the rural environment

Human activity, then, contributes in a decisive way to the socio-environmental conditions that facilitate the excessive fires recorded in recent years. It happens in Europe as well as in other continents.

The significant increase in temperatures and periods of drought caused by climate change has added to the progressive depopulation of rural areas since the 1960s. This phenomenon has led to many lands previously destined for agricultural use being recolonized by vegetation particularly vulnerable to fire, such as scrub or pine forests.

Also, the economic transition of the 1960s and 1970s - with the replacement of wood as energy source in favor of, for example, butane - has led to an increase in fuel material at the forest-rural interface. People stopped collecting firewood in the forests.

Thus, large fires can no longer be considered as mere natural events and, even less, should they be defined as natural disasters. These tragic events, which increasingly strike our surroundings, when they do not directly threaten our cities, are the result of mistaken adaptive strategies developed over years, decades or centuries by society.

In other words, these disastrous events are the result of historical processes set in motion by the very communities that are damaged by them. The same is true of the progressively more common floods (see what has recently happened in Germany).

It is important to understand that fires, floods and droughts are not the simple consequence of natural manifestations, which in themselves could be innocuous. They are the product of misguided territorial policies, developed by communities that have often forgotten their own recent history. This alone would have taught them the risks present in their environment and the behaviors that contributed to build them.

Raising disasters, erroneously defined as natural, to historical processes is therefore tantamount to making us as a society responsible for past and future disasters. At the same time, through the training of a solid historical report , it allows us to lay a fertile ground for an appropriate management of our territories and natural resources.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.

The Conversation