Hundreds of thousands of years of hunter-gatherers survived, and in some ways evolved as a result of, extreme droughts, floods, and wildfires. They did so despite extraordinary ecological changes they could not dream of controlling, adapting themselves to the new realities of their environment. Some approaches worked, and inevitably some did not. But a hominid record that stretches millions of years reveals a model for resilience to extreme natural events like droughts, floods, and wildfires. First and foremost, they were mobile. For some hunter-gatherer societies this meant the entire community migrated to a more favorable environment; for others, the relocations were temporary. Whatever the extent, societies that prioritized mobility were successful in removing people and assets from harm’s way. Second, their approaches were diversified. Societies were adept at recognizing and exploiting many potential food sources and ecosystem services. Mobility and diversification, in turn, were made possible by a sophisticated awareness of the surrounding environment. Ecological changes and opportunities were recognized and effectively integrated into community decision-making processes. These characteristics of the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer – mobility, diversification, and awareness – allowed societies to survive for thousands if not millions of years.
The Neolithic Revolution brought a fundamental shift to the human lifestyle. Agricultural systems require settlement and management of a static area. When a drought, flood, or wildfire strikes the region, escape to more favorable conditions is not possible. The vulnerabilities of this approach are exacerbated by reliance on one or a limited number of short-sighted resilience strategies, such as cutting down a forest or building a dam. What mitigation options remain are not capitalized on due to a low level of awareness of the surrounding environment and its feedbacks, or an inability to effectively translate awareness into meaningful policy change. These characteristics of vulnerable civilizations are apparent in the legal frameworks of the United States. The totality of drought, flood, and wildfire laws and policies conform to three basic approaches: 1) controlling nature; 2) spreading risk across society; and 3) providing ex-post disaster relief. The first approach utilizes impressive feats of human engineering and ingenuity, but inadequately considers the consequences of modifying natural systems. Relying on infrastructure is equally problematic because built structures are prone to deteriorate and fail.Spreading risks across society by subsidizing insurance premiums for people and property in high-risk areas is compassionate and may promote other policy interests, but for purposes of building resilience to extreme natural events is not productive, and may in fact be counterproductive. The current trend of distributing generous disaster relief packages to affected communities is similarly compassionate but ineffectual in building resilience. Taken together the paradigm of disaster law in the United States boils down to strategies that control nature or, should that fail, reactively soften the blow.
...It is unlikely that the highly populated agricultural societies of the Anthropocene will return to a nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle. Nonetheless, millions of years of human evolution and adaptation to droughts, floods, and wildfires tells a success story that has long been overlooked. For the sake of our collective resilience to extreme events, we would be wise to take another look. Despite the contrast in lifestyles, droughts, floods, and wildfires have been a constant feature of humans in their environment. The resilience model of the past provides a paleo perspective on contemporary legal frameworks, and can helpfully inform the future.