If you’ve paid attention to the news in the last several days, you’ve probably heard about the brushfires in Australia. I’ve been paying closer attention to that story than I normally would have because I’ve been to many of the places which have been damaged by the fire. I’ve driven through country Victoria, I’ve seen first hand what the conditions are like and I’ve even seen brush fires (albeit nothing on the scale of what is happening now). I even got to see a rather large brush fire up close in Western Australia on my drive from Darwin to Perth.
There are tragedies which happen all around the world all the time. Floods, mudslides, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and fire are natural disasters which occur every few months and probably will never end. When you hear these things, there is a ceratin intellectual sympathy for the victims which exists, but it is nothing on par with what you experience when something happens to someone you know. To quote Adam Smith from The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759:
Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.
Travel changes that equation. Travel creates a link and changes how you perceive far away events. Everyone in the world saw the events of 9/11 on television. The previous year I had visited the World Trade Center. I had been in the buildings and had a personal grasp of just how big they were. When they were destroyed, it wasn’t just an intellectual outrage at people dying, I was personally flabbergasted at how it was possible for something so large to disappear. That extra feeling came from having been there. Obviously, the closer you were to the event, the bigger the impact would be.
On New Year’s Eve there was a fire in Bangkok which killed 60 people. It was about a kilometer from where I was staying at the time. That night I heard sirens and sounds but had no idea what was going on. The next morning when I read the news, it sort of hit me harder than it would have if I had read about somewhere else. 60 people died……right over there. I heard the sirens. Maybe I met one of the people who died. It drove the story home a bit more than if I had been somewhere else.
Sometimes this can backfire. In the tsunami of 2004, a disproportionate amount of media attention was given to Thailand, in particular Phuket. The tsunami killed almost a quarter of a million people around the world. The death toll in Thailand was over 5,000 which would be a horrible disaster by itself on any other day. Of those 5,000, about half were western tourists. Most of the video of the tsunami which made it to the internet was from Thailand. Thailand was by far the biggest tourist destination hit by the tsunami.
The 5,000 deaths in Thailand, however, were dwarfed by the over 130,000 killed in Indonesia, 35,000 killed in Sri Lanka, and 12,000 killed in India. Yet, a disproportionate amount of attention was given to Thailand because that is where the westerners were and where everyone goes on vacation.
On balance, the ties and connections made by travel are beneficial. The more people can see other places and meet other people, the impact of disasters like these will be more than intellectual curiosities which are quickly forgotten.