Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Terrible natural disasters will come someday, but most people have a hard time worrying about stuff that isn’t imminent.
One day, an earthquake anywhere from 8.0 to 9.2 magnitude will rupture along the Cascadia subduction zone. This is the 700-mile convergence of tectonic plates in the Pacific Northwest that scientists were unaware of until recent decades. But, as Kathryn Schulz masterfully details in the New Yorker, it will rupture—quite possibly within the next 50 years.
When it does, some 13,000 people, many likely to be kids at school, are projected to die as a result of the earthquake and the even-more-devastating tsunami it will cause. The cost of recovery is incalculable. The region, which includes Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem, and Olympia, is woefully unprepared. At least 7 million people will be impacted.
And guess what? Many of them probably aren’t worried enough to act.
At least that’s what psychology teaches us. Turns out most of us just aren’t that good at calculating risk, especially when it comes to huge natural events like earthquakes. That also means we’re not very good at mitigating those kinds of risks. Why? And is it possible to get around our short-sightedness, so that this time, we’re actually prepared?
Risk perception is a vast, complex field of research. Here are just some of the core findings.
Studies show that when people calculate risk, especially when the stakes are high, we rely much more on feeling than fact. And we have trouble connecting emotionally to something scary if the odds of it happening today or tomorrow aren’t particularly high. So, if an earthquake, flood, tornado or hurricane isn’t immediately imminent, people are unlikely to act.
“Perceiving risk is all about how scary or not do the facts feel,” says David Ropeik, a risk-perception consultant who has written multiple books on the subject. “A risk in the future feels a lot less scary than a risk that’s presented right now.”
This feeling also relates to how we perceive natural, as opposed to human-made, threats. We tend to be more tolerant of nature than of other people who would knowingly impose risks upon us—terrorists being the clearest example.
“We think that nature is out of our control—it’s not malicious, it’s not profiting from us, we just have to bear with it,” says Paul Slovic, a pioneer in risk perception psychology, consultant, and professor at the University of Oregon. “But if it’s a chemical company that’s exposing us to some slight increase of risk of cancer, we are not tolerant to that.”
And in many cases, though not all, people living in areas threatened by severe natural hazards do so by choice. If a risk has not been imposed on us, we take it much less seriously. Though Schulz’s piece certainly made a splash online, it is hard to imagine a mass exodus of Portlanders and Seattleites in response. Hey, they like it there.
But really, what are the odds?
Following Schulz’s story, people all over the world are talking about the Pacific Northwest’s prospects for seismic survival. Some of us can relate, from experience, to the disaster Schulz describes. Readers who experienced Japan’s 9.0 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, for example, probably reacted with high levels of concern.
But those living along Cascadia’s frontlines face another barrier to an accurate calculation of risk: They don’t have much to compare the future earthquake to. After all, there hasn’t been an earthquake or tsunami like it there since roughly 1700.
Schulz poeticizes this problem, calling out humans for their “ignorance of or an indifference to those planetary gears which turn more slowly than our own.” Once again, this confounds our emotional connection to the risk.
But our “temporal parochialism,” as Schulz calls it, also undoes our grasp on probability. “We think probability happens with some sort of regularity or pattern,” says Ropeik. “If an earthquake is projected to hit within 50 years, when there hasn’t been one for centuries, we don’t think it’s going to happen.” Illogical thinking works in reverse, too: “If a minor earthquake just happened in Seattle, we think we’re safe.”
The belief that an unlikely event won’t happen again for a while is called a gambler’s fallacy. Probability doesn’t work like that. The odds are the same with every roll of the dice.
There’s other stuff to worry about
Schulz drops an alarming fact at the end of her piece: 62 percent of voters in Seaside, Oregon* vetoed a local bond measure that would have helped build a new K-12 campus outside of the tsunami inundation zone. Probably, they felt their tax money could be better spent elsewhere.
That isn’t as crazy or callous as it sounds. There are a million things to care about in our cash-strapped, unequal society. Unemployment. College tuition. Affordable housing. For individuals and government alike, addressing every point of concern requires a cost-benefit analysis. When kids barely have pencils and paper in schools that already exist, how much is appropriate to invest in earthquake preparedness? Even when that earthquake will kill thousands, displace millions, and cripple a region’s economy for decades to come—as Cascadia is projected to—the answer is complicated.
“You immediately run into competing issues,” says Slovic. “When you’re putting resources into earthquake protection that has to be taken away from current social needs—that is a very difficult sell.”
So, too often, cities and regions end up woefully underprepared for these mega-events.
Can we circumvent our irrationality?
There are things people can do to combat our innate irrationality. The first is obvious: education. California has a seismic safety commission whose job is to publicize the risks of earthquakes and advocate for preparedness at household and state policy levels. The Pacific Northwest should have a regional agency that performs that function.
That agency could also help give property owners subsidies and rebates for relatively affordable steps, like bolting foundations and securing water heaters. Another idea is similar to food safety ratings in the windows of some cities’ restaurants. Schulz reports that some 75 percent of Oregon’s structures aren’t designed to hold up to a really big Cascadia quake.
“These buildings could have their risk and safety score publicly posted,” says Slovic. “That would motivate people to retrofit or mitigate those risks, particularly if they are schools.”
Still, the science points to a hard truth. Humans are simply inclined to be more concerned about what’s immediately in front of us: Snakes, fast-moving cars, unfamiliar chemical compounds in our breakfast cereal and the like will always elicit a quicker response than an abstract, far-off hazard.
On the other hand, as large-scale natural events like quakes, floods, and hurricanes become more frequent and more severe, the more of us there will be with the capacity to relate—and hopefully, to get mobilized for the next one.
*This post previously suggested that 62 percent of Oregon voters had voted down a state bond measure. In fact, it was 62 percent of voters in the city of Seaside.