Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Feeling the heat?

Posted by Daniel Hall on October 25, 2007

I have several friends who live in Southern California. From the inbox:

The Santiago Fire was a couple blocks from my place in Lake Forest. Here are some photos.

California wildfire.  Photo by Chris Jones.

SoCal is a great place to live, but I wonder if we have the optimal number of people living there given the risks of fires and mudslides. Clearly we want to have effective emergency response to disasters in order to save lives and property, but at a certain level of effectiveness should we start worrying about moral hazard? As Matthew Kahn says,

…if the firemen were less good at putting out fires and risking their own lives, would fewer people live in the fire zone?

If it’s just state and local agencies that are involved in emergency response it may not be as big an issue: Californians all over the state choose to subsidize those who live in fire-prone regions. But if the federal government steps in with disaster-assistance — essentially serving as insurer of last resort — are we just encouraging too many people to live in paradise (or hell, this week)?

Photo credit: Chris Jones.

5 Responses to “Feeling the heat?”

  1. Rich Sweeney said

    I don’t want to sound insensitive, but every time something like this happens in California I am reminded of this passage, from Don Delillo’s White Noise:

    “Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy the disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.”

  2. Have to agree with Rich to some extent. I remember feeling pretty smug a few years ago when huge houses were a-mudslidin’ on into the ocean. You mean cliffs are affected by erosion? Well, shit.

  3. Drea said

    I feel like as a native San Diegan and Californian, I have to respond to the comments given to this post. As any other place in the US, California comes equipped with possible disasters. We have our earthquakes, wildfires and whatnot. That’s just part of life for us here and even though it’s a tragedy, I personally can say it just comes with the territory of living here. We don’t deserve such awful catastrophes but we also are not asking for it just because we are from California. It’s the same thing of having a great intellectual environment in Washington DC or cultural lifestyle in New York City but it’s nasty to live in both cities during the hot, humid summer months and the difficult, freezing winters and the yearly hurricanes. Every time I have had encounters with people from the east coast, I have had two reactions. The first is this fascination of our so-called unique lifestyle (just because we are health conscious and whatnot, we shouldn’t be persecuted) and the second is this look of perverse animosity that we do not deserve to be part of the rest of the country. We’re Americans, just like everyone else. That’s all.

  4. Rich Sweeney said

    Hey Drea. The words about lifestyle I posted weren’t mine, they’re Delillo’s. And I wasn’t saying I agree with them either, I was merely sharing a notable quotation from what, in my opinion at least, is one of the five best American novels of the 20th century.

    As for Evan, he’s from Iowa, so no East coast bitterness/animosity there.

    His point though, I think, was at least more relevant than mine to the general theme of this blog. While it’s clearly wrong to trivialize the suffering of people hurt in natural disasters, I don’t think it’s wrong to question if such suffering could have been prevented. If people really are failing to properly consider the risk of disaster when deciding where to live, it seems to me that economists should try to understand why this is happening and policymakers should try to correct it.

    Not sure what you mean by “unique lifestyle” but I’m sure as hell fascinated by someone who builds a $20 million home on an obviously tenuous precipice in the OC. If you’re not, then that’s cool too. But let’s not turn this lighthearted blog into Harvard and Larry Summers here.

  5. Drea said

    I didn’t mean to come off that I was angry but I was a little irritated when I feel like people infer that these tragedies are happening to us just because of our desire to live in paradise.

    And why would someone build a “$20 million home on obviously tenuous precipice in the OC,” well it’s because they can. That doesn’t mean I agree and approve of it but it is because they can. To be honest, I feel like a reference to the Katrina disaster is important here. Many people decided to go back to New Orleans after what happened because that is where home lies in their heart. It is the same thing for people who have gone out and fell in love with So Cal. I have been to different parts of the country and I have entertained the idea of moving somewhere else to experience a different environment but I also know that I will always want to settle down permanently in San Diego and I know many people who grew up here feel the same way.

    Also, the unique lifestyle I was referring to is the reference to “Hollywood,” and the “hippie, health-conscious” that some people assume everyone from California lives under. Obviously, you’re an intellectual so you don’t have the naïve assumptions that other people have but if you knew how many people have talked to me in that way, it can get under your skin quickly.

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