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A Pessimistic Conclusion

A common scene: in the Metro station there are two bins. One is for garbage. The one immediately beside it is for recycling newspapers. The garbage bin is piled high with newspapers, while the newspaper recycling bin is practically empty.

And yet some people still think the human race will be able to take action against, say, climate change.


Rebutting Some Forms Of Polygamy

Dan Savage relays an interesting argument on the topic of "gay marriage will lead to polygamy" made by E.J. Graff. Graff argues that western ideas of marriage are in the process of shifting from a model of marriage as men's ownership of wombs to marriage as a partnership of equals. Same-sex marriage is (as Ampersand recently pointed out in arguing for a switch to the terminology of "gender-neutral marriage") the logical next step in that movement. Polygamy, on the other hand, would be a step back, creating a situation in which "one man owns many wombs and grows lots of household labor." So if there's any slippery slope created by same-sex marriage, it slips away from polygamy.

I think Graff's argument is half right. She gives an effective response to the doubts of "Stymied In Canada," who wrote to Savage because as a feminist, she was worried that her support for same-sex marriage might open the door to the Mormon-patriarch-with-a-harem-of-15-year-olds style of polygamy. But Savage jumps the gun when he ends his column by saying "Now get off the table, SIC, and go argue with your right-wing acquaintances." I think Graff's argument is much less effective against right-wing users of the slippery slope argument, because she deals with only one of the two models of polygamy on offer.

In addition to the "Mormon patriarchs" model of polygamy, we can imagine another, which the polyamory community has been practicing (albeit without legal recognition) for some time now. In Graff's historical schema, polyamory is just the opposite of "Mormon patriarchs" polygamy. Polyamory extends the idea of marriage as a free and equal partnership by asking why that partnership can only include two people. So Graff's argument not only doesn't rebut the idea that same-sex marriage would open the door to polyamory, it practically encourages it.

As far as I know, feminists have little problem with polyamory. However, right-wing users of the slippery slope argument are as concerned, if not more so, about polyamory than about "Mormon patriarchs" polygamy. The connotations of free love and promiscuity attached to the former are strong motivators behind the conservative feeling that polygamy is obviously bad. To respond effectively to her right-wing acquaintances, SIC would need to either show that polyamory is inconsistent with marriage equality, or to convince them that there's nothing wrong with polyamory.

Feminist Political Ecology of Wildfire

Towards the beginning of my grad school career, I was really interested in feminist geography. As I got involved in studying wildfire, that interest fell by the wayside. Beyond the standard testing for gender differences in survey responses (which usually came out as not significant in past research), there wasn't much of an obvious gender angle to my emerging research idea. But in thinking about how the two areas of research might be combined, a hypothesis occurred to me. It's too far off from what I'm doing for me to look into it right now, but perhaps some enterprising political ecologist looking for a new project might want to investigate it.

The pre-colonial inhabitants of our case study area -- let's say somewhere in the Top End of Australia -- had an economy based on the use of a diverse range of plants and animals. This diversity was maintained by a sophisticated pattern of controlled burning that optimized the whole suite of products. The incorporation of the area into the capitalist system in the colonial and post-colonial era brought several major changes. First, much of the land was converted to the specialized production of one or two major cash crops (in Australia, cattle and sheep). Second, a gendered division of labor arose in which the cash crops were handled by the men, while the women were responsible for the household and continuing subsistence production. This subsistence production on the side remained important, because cash crop production by colonized people has rarely been sufficient by itself to provide a decent standard of living. The post-colonial fire pattern, however, has altered to optimize only cash crop production. With the remaining non-cash crop areas surrounded by cash crop areas and at the mercy of the latter's burning patterns, they are no longer optimized for the production of subsistence resources. This puts a heavier burden on the women whose work it is to produce those subsistence resources.


Flat Earth

I don't link to the non-political blogs in my blogroll much, but Gary has an interesting little social psychology experiment he did in his Earth Science class.


Funding Endangered Species

Rewrite Of Endangered Species Law Approved

Setting the stage for the most sweeping restructuring of endangered species protections in three decades, the House Resources Committee yesterday approved legislation that would strengthen the hand of private property owners and make it harder for federal officials to set aside large swaths of habitat for imperiled plants and animals.

The measure, which the panel approved 26 to 12 with eight Democrats voting aye, would require the government to compensate landowners if it declared some of their property off-limits to development to protect federally listed species, and to decide such cases within 180 days.

I love how you have to read ten paragraphs into a typical news article about a bill before they actually tell you what the bill says.

On the surface, requiring that landowners be compensated when their property is compromised by being declared endangered species habitat is not such a bad idea, given that our current system is one in which absolute property rights are the default. The real trick is in asking where the money for this compensation is going to come from -- who would be willing to bet that a Republican Congress is going to appropriate enough money for an effective amount of habitat to be established?


Stay Home During A Fire

Civil Liberties Group Urges Choice On Bushfire Evacuations

Civil Liberties Australia wants the ACT Government to change the law to give residents the right to remain in their homes in the event of a bushfire.

... Spokesman Anthony Williamson says the law is out of step with the advice of firefighting authorities, and goes against the recommendations of the McLeod report into the 2003 Canberra firestorm.

... "When it comes to a choice between saving a house and saving a life, it's a very easy choice for me," he [Police Minister John Hargreaves] said.

First, I should point out that CLA is right about the potential for residents to save their own homes, based on the state-of-the-art wildfire research. Most homes destroyed in a wildfire are not burned down by the main wall of fire, which is typically moving too quickly to ignite home materials. The real danger is small sparks and airborne bits of flammable material, which lodge in eaves and other nooks of a home. Over time, these small ignition sources set the rest of the house alight. But were there a person in the home, they could be swatted out while they're still small. Of course, this all depends on good preparation by homeowners -- things like clearing defensible space to ensure that the home will in fact survive the initial fire front, and knowing how to locate and extinguish sparks.

Hargreaves' rebuttal is a strange one. I could understand if he emphasized the importance of public order in the fire area, or if he was simply skeptical of homeowners' ability to save themselves and their homes. But the purported tradeoff between saving a home and saving a person seems unlikely -- it's hard to imagine a situation where staying behind would result in a death but save the house. The choice is between saving only the person, or a chance of saving either both or neither.


Ideological Coherence

I normally can't stand Daily Kos, but I happened to be skimming it today and a post caught my eye. Kos links to an AP report that the federal government is trying to turn up evidence that would allow them to blame the failure of the levees in New Orleans on environmental groups' lawsuits obstructing the Army Corps of Engineers. (Emily Gertz has more about one such claim that has already been raised.)

Kos is dismissive of the likely impact of such a claim, rattling off a list of other excuses that the administration has given for its mishandling of the hurricane. I agree that blaming environmentalists is not going to make much difference in public opinion -- but for a quite different reason. In Kos's world, the President's approval ratings are plummeting. Katrina blew the lid off his pretensions to competence, and so any feeble attempt to shift blame will never hold up.

In my world, however, Katrina has changed nobody's mind. It merely added another arrow to all the pre-existing quivers. Blaming environmentalists won't persuade anyone because there isn't anyone to persuade. The argument will be eaten up by those who already exonerate the administration, and rejected out of hand by those (like myself and Kos) who already assume the worst about the President. The folks at Gallup seem to inhabit my world, finding in their latest poll that the partisan divide on Bush's handling of Katrina is nearly perfect, and that his overall popularity has bounced right back to pre-hurricane levels.

But blaming environmentalists is actually a clever strategy here, rather than a waste of PR money. And it's clever not because it's going to sway anyone on the fence about Bush's handling of the hurricane, but because it speaks to those who are already Bush partisans. People hold their views more strongly the more they feel that they "hang together," mutually supporting each other. Libertarians, for example, are able to maintain a viewpoint that runs orthogonal to the prevailing camps not because they just happen to agree with lassiez-faire economics and abortion each on their own merits, but because they have a meta-narrative that tells them that those positions go together (indeed, that they go together much better than the mix of positions held by either of the major parties). The explanations for any one event (such as Katrina) by ideologues serve not just to promote their side's take on the issue at hand, but also to tie it into all of the other positions that side holds. So blaming environmentalists for the levee breaches assures conservatives not only that Bush is not to blame, but also that that view goes well with the conservative dislike of environmentalism and (perhaps more importantly) the judiciary. When your beliefs seem to cohere like that, your confidence that you have correctly judged the merits of any one of them increases. The ideologies of the major American parties need a good bit of this shoring up of coherence, because they're not all that much different (or all that coherent). But they're strong enough that there would be a fair bit of cognitive dissonance involved in accepting this one pro-Bush argument without taking on the whole package.

(At the risk of being unnecessarily snarky, you have to wonder how Bush has enough loyalists left even just to fill his cabinet if his popularity has really taken the number of critical blows that Democratic partisans like Kos claim it has. Every week a new issue is the last straw that will finally turn the country against the President.)


Bush Survives With Nary A Scratch

I think Jonathan Chait hits the nail on the head in explaining why President Bush will sail through the Katrina debacle unscathed:

So here we are, with the administration having badly bungled a war and a major national disaster, not to mention making a complete hash of the budget. Yet Bush and his aides don't seem very upset. And why should they be? There's nothing anybody can do to them now.

Chait goes on to explain how the structure of Congress, combined with the existence of a hard core of 35-40% of voters who would vote Republican even if Bush held a baby-eating orgy in the Rose Garden, means it's exceedingly unlikely that Congressional Republicans will feel the heat over Katrina either. I would add to that the fact that the election is over a year away. The more time passes, the more the really visceral images of dectruction and immediate-aftermath incompetence will fade. The Republican spin machine has finally gotten into gear*, so anyone who's currently staring down the tough choice of rejecting the GOP will be offered a comfortable narrative that will make peace between the tragedy of Katrina and their commitment to the Republican party.

Garance Franke-Ruta suggests that, while the ballot box might not have much strength against Bush, perhaps the media can create some accountability. Now, this might be true if the President believed that getting good reviews from the New York Times was intrinsically valuable -- but George W. Bush is not such a president. The only real power the press has is the power to influence people's decisions in the voting booth.

However, Chait seems surprised at the continuing loyalty of some ideologues:

What I think it means is that Kristol, like most conservatives, will remain loyal to Bush as long as he remains ideologically true, no matter how badly he governs.

To me, this is unsurprising, though not for the knee-jerk reason that conservatives are dumb and don't pay attention to reality. It's in the nature of an ideologue to see ideology as of primary importance. Post-Katrina hurricane relief is a relatively non-ideological task, but many other things the president does are not. Chait is implying that much of what a president does is similarly administrative, jobs where the goal is clear and the only question is the President's skill in carrying them out. An ideologue like Kristol, on the other hand, sees a big part of the President's job as consisting of setting those goals. Competence in carrying them out is only as good as the goals themselves. Think of it this way: had Bush executed the Katrina aftermath perfectly, making none of the mistakes for which he's been criticized, how many liberals would be willing to support him? Would saving a few thousand more people in New Orleans outweigh five years of corporate cronyism, the war in Iraq, two conservative Supreme Court justices, undermining environmental protection, a yawning budget deficit, and more? It's a tough question, and looking at it that way makes loyal ideologues seem reasonable after all.

*The leftward half of the punditocracy has been repeatedly led astray by the fact that the GOP often waits a few days before pushing its spin, prematurely crowing that the right's propaganda machine has finally bitten off more than it can chew and heralding the downfall (finally!) of Bush. The fact is that Karl Rove is good enough that he can forego the first-mover advantage to wait and get a sense of the landscape.


Contradictory Hell

There seems to be a contradiction between two key doctrines of traditional Christianity: desert and depravity. The doctrine of desert states that, judged on their own actions, all sinners deserve to go to hell. Any sin, no matter how small, is appropriately punished by an eternity of suffering. The rationale for this rests on free will -- we make a choice to sin or not sin, and therefore deserve the consequences of each. On the other hand, the doctrine of depravity states that everyone is a sinner. It's in human nature to be unable to avoid sin. While we may be free at the scale of an individual decision, in the larger picture -- which is the basis on which we're judged -- we'll inevitably sin at least some of the time.

Taken together, these two doctrines run afoul of one of the most widely accepted principles in ethical philosophy: ought implies can. That is, we can't be obligated to do anything that is impossible for us to do. (Many people -- notably critics of utilitarianism -- interpret this principle even more liberally, holding that we can't be obligated to do anything that is really hard for us to do either.)

Pop Christianity resolves the problem in the post-Crucifixion world. According to pop Christianity, Jesus' death essentially revised the entry requirements for heaven. Rather than demanding total purity, God gives us a much more manageable task -- just believe in Jesus. However, I think most theologians would dispute pop Christianity's interpretation. According to a more intellectual Christianity, the pre-Jesus doctrine of desert still holds. Believing in Jesus is not an alternative path to earning salvation, but rather a method for begging God for mercy, to spare you from the punishment that you continue (in violation of "ought implies can") to deserve. While we can trust God to save everyone who believes, he's under no obligation to, and we'd have no right to complain if he decided to send us all to hell for our sins after all.


Two Types Of Fatalism

Of the four ways of life described in the Cultural Theory of Risk, Fatalism has always been the odd one out. It was hardly mentioned in Douglas and Wildavsky's initial statement of the theory in Risk and Culture. It's the only part of the Cultural Theory typology that doesn't align with one of Alan Fiske's four models of social interaction*. Attempts to empirically validate Cultural Theory rarely turn up any Fatalists (which is perhaps unsurprising, since a Fatalist would be unlikely to see the point in filling out a survey).

The key difference between Fatalism and the other ways of life in Cultural Theory is that the other ways of life are active. Egalitarianism, Hierarchism, and Individualism are all inspiring visions that motivate people to reshape the world in accordance with them. Fatalists, on the other hand, are simply resigned to their viewpoint.

Fatalism is an important concept in any complete theory of culture, but I think Cultural Theory concieves it too narrowly. This is apparent when Cultural Theorists talk about the myths of nature that accompany the ways of life. Fatalists, we are told, see nature as basically random. The reason action is pointless to a Fatalist is because its effects are entirely unpredictable.

I think a distinction should be made between the kind of "chance Fatalism" that Cultural Theory proposes and another form of Fatalism (of which I am increasingly an adherent) that we could call "structural Fatalism." Structural Fatalists do see order in the world -- indeed, they may have a clear view of exactly how nature and society work. But unlike the other three ways of life, structural Fatalists are skeptical about humans' ability to alter this order -- so the content of that order is more or less irrelevant to them. Individualists are optimistic about humans' ability to exploit the world, Egalitarians live in fear of how easily human action can change the world, and Hierarchists are confident that knowledge will allow us to manage the world in detail. Structural Fatalists, on the other hand, see the world as clanking along and pulling humans with it, such that we can neither manage, destroy, nor even exploit, the forces that face us. Structural Fatalists are the despairing determinists of Cultural Theory.

*Fiske's fourth model -- Equality Matching -- was also the oddball in his typology, being the least common in real life, the least often recognized by the other theorists whose work he synthesizes, and the last model he observed in his fieldwork among the Moose people. However, it does bear an interesting resemblance to the "mutualist" way of life that van Heffen and Klok proposed in their attempt at an expanded grid/group typology.


Resilience Validates Political Ecology

It occurs to me that my observation in the previous post is essentially a restatement (albeit in a more idealist rather than materialst mode) of what might be called the Second Law of Political Ecology*: "natural" disasters entrench the status quo. The early political ecologists pointed out that disasters always hit the have-nots hardest, knocking them further down the ladder. And disaster relief is structured in such a way that it perpetuates their vulnerability.

At first glance, this seems incompatible with the idea of resilience and the adaptive cycle, which I also find to be a compelling theory. After all, the central idea of the adaptive cycle is that any system will eventually build toward a collapse, and that after the collapse the system is indeterministic, open to being dramatically shaped by contingency. But that seeming incompatibility is because the Second Law of Political Ecology is multi-scalar, while the basic presentation of the adaptive cycle is only at one scale.

In Panarchy, Gunderson and Holling describe how adaptive cycles at different temporal and spatial scales interact. In a "revolution," an Ω (collapse) phase of a smaller-scale cycle provokes an Ω in a larger-scale cycle. For a revolution to occur requires either a very large Ω collapse in the smaller system, or a very rigid and non-resilient larger system (i.e. a very advanced K phase vulnerable to disturbance). On the other hand, "remembering" occurs when a larger-scale K phase stabilizes a smaller-scale α phase, sending the smaller-scale system back along the same track as its previous cycle.

The political ecology of a natural disaster has basically two scales -- the smaller scale of the local area directly affected by the disaster, and the larger national or global political economy. At the moment, the capitalist world political economy is still fairly resilient (indeed, one of the key elements of capitalism is its ability to renew itself on short timescales, thus avoiding -- at least for a time -- the kind of huge Ω that Karl Marx thought was just around the corner). Thus it would take a very big disaster -- much larger than Hurricane Katrina -- to provoke an Ω that would fundamentally alter the basic structure of the global political economy. Instead, the global system acts as a giant flywheel to stabilize and recreate the social, economic, and ecological relations at the smaller scale.

*The First Law of Political Ecology, which is in some sense just a more emphatic and critical restatement of the First Law of Risk/Hazards, is "there is no such thing as a 'natural' disaster."

Polysemic Diasasters

One thing pretty much everyone seems to agree on is that major disasters are very informative events. They're so big, and so undeniable, that they tear away comfortable illusions about how the world works. During a disaster, reality comes and gives us a big slap in the face, delivering clear and irrefutable evidence about how things work. Even Cultural Theory, which holds that our viewpoint is always biased, sees disasters as an instance when nature can force us to shift from one bias to another.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, this idea has been widely invoked. But I've yet to encounter a single person who claims to have been the person converted to a different viewpoint by the disaster. Instead, we have a variety of people each claiming that their own pre-existing ideology has been validated and that only an act of willful ignorance will keep the rest of the country from seeing the light. So to Democrats, Katrina proves how uncaring and incompetent the Bush administration is, while Republicans see it as clear evidence of state and local Democrats' failures. Libertarians find evidence of government's incompetence while their critics see it as proof that big government is necessary. To the religious right, Katrina makes clear God's judgment against sexual deviants. Socialists see evidence of the fundamental injustice of modern capitalism while for cultural leftists the racist underbelly of America has been exposed. And for environmentalists, Katrina is clear evidence of the folly of trying to tame a major river and a consequence of climate change.

Not every ideology claims to have been validated by Katrina. For example, I haven't seen a distinct "feminist" explanation, since it's difficult -- absent the kind of divine intervention invoked by the religious right -- to blame the disaster on sex and gender issues. So feminists have tended to fall in with the Democrats and socialists and cultural leftists.

None of this is to say that the explanations on offer are all equally wrong or undecidable. I'm pretty convinced that the socialist, cultural leftist, and to some extent environmentalist viewpoints are basically right. What I am saying, though, is that we can't expect the bare fact of Katrina to prove our case. Rather than being hard and easily interpreted evidence, disasters are richly polysemic, offering support for a variety of interpretations.


Fire Season

Here's some better news from the natural disasters front:

Millions Of Acres Burn, But Not In The Usual Way

The number of acres charred by wildfire across the West this year is almost double the 10-year average, but this summer's forest fires have neither been as big nor as devastating as those in past years.

Fire behavior experts say the apparent contradiction is because of unusual moisture patterns in the region earlier this year, which favored big grass fires on the open range. Timber in the mountains received more moisture than usual well into the summer, keeping forest fires small.

... "To get a big fire, you need high temperatures, low relative humidity, dry fuels and winds all aligned on the same day," said [Forest Service analyst Tom] Wordell. "We haven't seen that much this year, yet our overall acreage burned is much higher than in the past."

On the other hand, 2003 was a comparatively mild fire season despite seeing the huge fires in Southern California. (Those fires were in October, and since that region is still very vulnerable to fire, it may be a bit premature to declare this season free of any major fires.) So this is a note of caution about using acres burned as a measure of the severity of a fire season.


Replumbing Louisiana, Part 2

August Pollak (via Pandagon) has some harsh words for people (like myself, in the previous post) who have questioned New Orleans' location. He points out that there are significant geographical reasons for the city's location (i.e., it's the mouth of a major river), then says:

Granted, this is arguably the most devestating disaster to ever occur on U.S. soil, but to me saying that we should leave NOLA to rot because of the hurricane is like saying we should relocate the city of Los Angeles because of the earthquakes, or that we should never build anything where the World Trade Center once stood. You make it sound like a hurricane destroys the city on a weekly basis- "oh no, not again. Honey, we should really move up the street!" If we were to declare that any city or area damaged by the elements was an unlivable wasteland, half of Florida and California would be a John Carpenter movie right now.

If the argument -- and I gather from Pollak's piece that some people see it this way -- is simply that New Orleans is such a mess that we might as well just give up, that argument is wrong. Even if we move the city, the mess in old New Orleans still has to be cleaned up.

But in terms of my own rationale for contemplating moving the city, there's a key difference between New Orleans and the other disaster-prone cities that Pollak mentions. LA gets hit by earthquakes from time to time, but in between quakes it remains quite liveable. Once the rubble was cleared, the World Trade Center site was a perfectly good piece of real estate. The site of New Orleans, however, is not so resilient. Major deltas are geomorphologically unstable -- the city is literally built on shifting sand. By building levees to protect the area from flooding, we've opened the area to erosion of coastal marshes and land subsidence (downtown New Orleans wasn't four feet below sea level when it was originally built). And the problem of the Atchafalaya continues to loom over the region. The forces of geomorphology and hydrology will steadily undermine New Orleans regardless of how well we prepare for hurricane events.

Pollak is right that there's no justification for blaming the individual people of New Orleans for locating where they did. We also can't blame the oil and shipping companies that drew them there. As Pollak outlined, there are good reasons to have put a city just where New Orleans is. But on the other hand, we can't ignore the fact that the Mississippi river is inevitably making that location less and less suitable for a city. What's to blame is not human stupidity, but a structural mismatch between an economy that demands a permanent port infrastructure at the mouth of a major river near a large oil-producing region, and a geomorphology unsuitable in the long run for building permanent infrastructure.

To just propose moving the whole city is pretty simplistic. But it gets the facts of nature on the table and makes us think about the larger picture. It makes us realize that the ground New Orleans is built on is unstable, and that somehow we have to address that fact.


Replumbing Louisiana

I wonder if Hurricane Katrina might not be just the opportunity we need to reroute the Mississippi River.

Major rivers carry huge loads of sediment, which settle out of them as they reach level coastal areas. This deposition leads, over long periods of time, to shifts and branches in the river's course. In the case of the Mississippi, the river wants to jump out of its current channel into the Atchafalaya River, which would send it to a point further west on the Louisiana coast than its current mouth. We had invested so much in building up New Orleans and other cities along the original lower stretch of the Mississippi that it would be catastrophic if the river ever crossed into the Atchafalaya. So the Army Corps of Engineers has built massive engineering structures to keep the Mississippi in the course where the first European settlers found it.

But like most of the Corps' major hydrological projects, holding the Mississippi in its channel can't last forever. Eventually the shifting sediments of the river valley, perhaps triggered by a major storm that passes a bit further west than Katrina, will undermine our best dams and levees. The people currently living along the Atchafalaya will be wiped out, while the rebuilt New Orleans will be left stranded.

Right now, though, southern Louisiana is already in shambles. New Orleans will not regain its former size an importance for many years, if ever. Katrina has already destroyed so much of what a jump into the Atchafalaya has destroyed that deliberately breaching the dam will add little to the recovery costs. And it will save us from a long, expensive, and futile battle to keep the river where it is.

Of course, this is politically unfeasible. In the wake of a disaster, there is a strong impulse to erase the disaster, to put everything back just like it was. A fully rebuilt New Orelans, including the Mississippi, would be a psychologically satisfying statement of "ha, mother nature can't keep us down" -- while ironically setting us up for a rough answering blow in the longer term. And while we might reluctantly accept a permanent change in the landscape wrought by nature, a direct human decision to do so will face stiff opposition. Finally, the Atchafalaya valley is not quite so wiped out as New Orleans, and thus would face significant added hardship (though they'll face it eventually regardless) -- the very eastward turn that kept Katrina from rerouting the Mississippi herself also spared the Atchafalaya valley from her worst damage.


Even after accounting for media sensationalism, I was quite surprised at the extent of the looting that has been reported in New Orleans. My surprise came because in the case of the natural disaster with which I'm most familiar -- wildfire -- fears of looting are typically quite overblown.

There's a certain sense to why people, particularly wealthier people, who have been evacuated from the urban-wildland interface due to a fire would fear looting. Their property has just been potentially taken away from them, and not simply by a blameless act of nature. If there is suspicion that the fire was a result of arson or human carelessness, great anger focuses on the person responsible. More immediately, the firefighters who ordered the evacuation become, in a sense, agents of property loss. (This is not entirely irrational. A good proportion of the homes lost in a fire are not burned by the main raging wall of fire as it sweeps through. Rather, they're ignited by sparks or bits of smouldering material left behind by the main fire -- which could be easily swatted out had someone remained in the house.) It's easy enough, then, to fear the further breakdown in property rights represented by looting.

So why is it, then, that there isn't actually much looting after a fire, whereas there is quite a bit after Hurricane Katrina? The most obvious explanation seems to be spatial. Wildfires hit exurban and rural areas, where houses are very spread out, whereas the hurricane hit a densely settled city. It's simply easier for anyone in New Orleans to move around, find places to loot, and make off with the goods. The very stretches of woods that drew people to fire-prone areas also protect them from looting.

Another explanation is economic. I don't mean in the sense that the people of New Orleans were poorer, and hence more inclined to stealing, than the average resident of a fire-prone area -- rich people are no saints, and there are increasing numbers of poor people being pushed into exurbia by gentrification. What I mean is the economic recovery time. The defining feature of exurbia (what makes it different from rural areas) is that it's a residential zone. Your house may burn down, but your office in downtown LA is just fine. New Orleans, on the other hand, was a mixed residential and commerical area. Thus people are looking at several months of not just homelessness but also joblessness. They lack the economic infrastructure to survive the recovery period. Thus a good amount of the New Orleans looting is people taking basic necessities like food.