Jewish World Review Dec. 31, 2003 / 6 Teves, 5764

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Globalization would help quake-shaken nations | The death toll in Bam, Iran, continues to climb. Some officials now fear that it could reach 50,000 souls. Obviously, this is terrible and tragic news. But there are some lessons for the rest of us, too.

The late, and occasionally great, comedian Sam Kinison had a famous routine where he would apoplectically ask why starving Ethiopians lived where there was no food. He ranted something like, "Why can't these people move!?" "Hey moron! You live in the DESERT! Nothing grows here! This is sand (miming holding sand in his hand)!" Then he would scream some more. After that, he'd say America should ship them a bunch of U-Hauls and Ryder trucks and move 'em to where there's some food.

Like pretty much everything Kinison did, the routine occupied the borderlands between juvenile tastelessness, middlebrow commentary and major-league funny.

Nonetheless, he was onto a question that's occurred to most of us at one point or another, "How come it seems like God keeps whipping the tar out of poor people?"

It seems that whenever there's a natural disaster in some country lacking indoor plumbing, tens of thousands of people die. Whenever there's a hurricane or earthquake in a country that has flush toilets, a couple dozen people die, if any. It's sort of the global variant of G-d's seemingly vindictive attitude toward trailer parks and mobile homes when it comes to tornadoes.

Less than a week before the earthquake in Bam, there was an earthquake in central California. The Bam quake registered 6.3 on the Richter scale, according to Iranian officials, and 6.7 according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It killed tens of thousands, leveled somewhere between 70 percent and 90 percent of the buildings and left almost everyone homeless. The California quake, which registered 6.5 on the Richter scale, killed two people. Damage was light.

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This disparity isn't a fluke. On Dec. 7, 1988, there was an earthquake in Armenia that killed 55,000 people. It recorded 7.0 on the Richter scale. Less than a year later, there was an earthquake in San Francisco and Oakland. It was a 7.1 on the Richter scale, but it claimed 62 lives.

About seven months later there was a quake near Rasht, Iran, scoring six tenths of a point higher, at 7.7. But that earthquake killed nearly 50,000 people. And in 1993, a 6.3 quake killed 30,000 people in Maharashtra, India. Three months later, in Northridge, Calif., a bigger quake, 6.8, "only" killed 61 people.

Also, keep in mind that the population density in industrialized nations is often much higher than in these other countries. The Northridge quake basically struck Los Angeles, a city of millions, with huge skyscrapers and busy highways, while Bam is a city of barely 200,000 people living in low stone buildings.

It's a pretty amazing thing when you think about it: When an earthquake strikes, it's safer to be on the 70th floor of a skyscraper in America than in a one-story building in Iran.

So what's the lesson here? Well, the countries or communities that don't fare as well in earthquakes have one overriding thing in common: they're poor. They cannot afford the materials, let alone the expensive regulations, we in the West rely on to live safely.

Of course, lack of earthquake preparedness is just one symptom of the general malady that is poverty. Poor, tradition-bound nations are ill-equipped to deal with disease, hurricanes, wars, food shortages and pretty much everything else the four horsemen of the Apocalypse bring with them.

But Sam Kinison's solution - moving them - isn't the answer. The solution is to make these nations richer - as quickly as possible. And the way we do that is by speeding up, not slowing down, globalization.

Global trade makes these countries wealthy, and wealth creates options for improving the quality of life. The rich nations of the world have constantly improving environmental, health and safety standards, because they can afford to.

Opponents of globalization say they want to allow "traditional" - i.e. dirt poor - societies of the Third World to protect their way of life from the "ravages" of the globalization. In reality, they want to keep these societies frozen in amber for the eco-tourists and sociologists. That's a fine position to take if you are willing to accept the fact that such societies "traditionally" lose millions of lives to calamities that are, for advanced nations, either preventable or inconsequential.

Whenever we get a heat wave on the East Coast, the media and environmental activists collude to blame global warming and, by extension, capitalism. Well, advocates of global enrichment should collude every time an earthquake, flood, or hurricane clobbers poor people and say, "See, this is the way opponents of globalization want it."

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