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James K. Mitchell’s essay “American Disasters during the Twentieth Century: The Case of New Jersey” is an intriguing piece which analyzes a number of different types of natural disasters within the state. Throughout the piece, Mitchell argues that “natural disasters” are a result of humans interacting with dangerous environments, leading to the destruction that ensues (327). At the start of the piece, I was a little skeptical about this idea, but by the end, Mitchell has swayed my opinion through his specific examples.
One example that Mitchell drew heavily on, which inevitably influenced my decision to conform to his school of thought, was his description of fires within New Jersey. Though New Jersey’s climate is not the most ideal for the spread of a wildfire, the dryness in the environment that occurs during the summer months does create favorable conditions for this type of disaster. Even so, it still takes a spark to create the fire in the first place, which Mitchell attributes specifically to human hand. Whether it was locomotives creating sparks with the tracks which sparked a flame or a person purposefully lighting something on fire, Mitchell attributes a majority of wildfires in New Jersey during the 20th century to humans (340-341). Due to humans, for a lack of better term, “playing with fire” in a region that tends to get pretty dry; they sparked the flames which created the massive devastation that we attribute to natural disasters. In this manner, it was humanity’s choice of acting in a hostile environment which created these disasters, which supports Mitchell’s argument regarding natural disasters.
Along with his claims about wildfires, Mitchell also analyzes humanity’s hand within droughts as well. Being from upstate New York and formerly living close to the New Jersey border, it was a little shocking at first to read about New Jersey suffering from droughts. Yet, after some thought on the matter, I realized that I was conflating my definition of a drought to a much larger scale, like something one might face in Arizona. After reassessing this definition, I noted that New York went through similar dry spells during the summer months, often resulting in the grass withering and browning. With this similar type of region in New Jersey, Mitchell noted that most registered droughts were a result of human use of the water supply (347). Again, within a region that tends to get dry, by humans using the water supply for x amount of things, like swimming pools, watering their lawn, etc., they create their own disaster through their actions. In a region that has a more abundant water supply, this type of natural disaster would be less likely, but because humans chose to inhabit this environment they are left to deal with the repercussions.
Manish makes some incredibly interesting comments about the lack of respect for nature by the people of Southern of California. Initially I was shocked to read his post about these people turning a blind eye to nature’s supremacy, instead creating their infrastructure with little concern to environmental threats. However, this mindset is something we have witnessed throughout our course with numerous people believing they could overcome nature. For example, our discussion on the Union General trying to shape the Mississippi and failing is a perfect portrayal of humanity continually believing themselves above nature’s power. Yet, with the devastation caused by natural disasters all over the country, we are reminded that humanity is simply another part of the ecosystem, with nature’s power reigning above all. Recognizing our place under nature’s power is important though for humanity’s growth in technology. As Manish references in his post, other people respond to natural disasters by improving their society in terms of safety and various forms of technology. In a backwards manner, one can almost view natural disasters as a good thing for society, as it sparks ongoing innovation.