Haiti is the poorest and most densely populated country in the Western Hemisphere, with a (pre-earthquake) population of around 10 million persons and a population density of 335 persons per sq km (10 times the density of the U.S.).[i] With a long history of colonial and political oppression, shortened life spans, massive poverty, energy shortages, poor health care, a raging HIV/AIDs/TB epidemic, and numerous other deep-seated social, political and economic problems, Haiti also represents a vivid and tragic example of Catton’s “Overshoot” concept of when a population exceeds the long term carrying capacity of its natural environment.[ii]

The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Haiti is to the left and the Dominican Republic is the greener area to the right (source: NASA).

As Amiel Blajchman and many others have pointed out, a major cause of Haiti’s environmental degradation has been the population’s need for cheap energy.[iii] Its growing and impoverished populace is perched on a small shared island landmass with almost no domestically available fossil fuel energy resources and few hydroelectric power supplies.[iv] The cause and effect has been a massive deforestation as wood became the primary but diminishing energy source for heating, cooking and lighting for much of its population. This dramatic deforestation[v] is even visible from NASA satellite imagery.[vi] The numerous ramifications of this environmental degradation are well described with adverse impacts on agriculture, hurricanes, transportation infrastructure and several ecosystems.[vii]

Now, with the worst earthquake shaking the Caribbean in 200 years, we must sadly add another chapter to the Haitian book chronicling the linkage between its human and ecological disasters.  Without significant domestic lumber sources or the resources to import replacements, much of the Haitian housing consists (or “consisted” in the areas hardest hit) of unreinforced or poorly reinforced concrete and concrete blocks of varyng quality.

Buildings lie in ruins on a hillside in Port-au-Prince (source: Ivanoh Demers / AP)

As can be seen by the utter devastation in the numerous aerial surveys and neighbourhood panoramas posted over the Internet, those type of structures fare much worse than that of wood frame housing known to perform well in earthquakes from a human safety perspective. Thus, the Haitians share all too much in common with the experience of the Easter Islanders ecocidal slide into oblivion discussed by Jared Diamond.[viii] Had the Haitian forest environment been managed differently they might have been able to build their homes out of wood and the human suffering from this rare but predictable earthquake would arguably not have been as great.

With the help of massive embodied energy in the food and disaster response resources imported from generous international humanitarian efforts, some of the longer term devastation and loss of life from this event will be averted or postponed. But one can’t help but shudder at the possibility of an entire world so constrained by energy/economic decline induced transport constraints where no help will arrive in time, if at all, in inevitable future earthquake and other natural and man-made disasters. Collapse may be slow and sometimes imperceptible by the current generation, as both Diamond and Greer[ix] eloquently discuss, but sometimes nature’s fury, compounded by mankind’s short-sightedness and foibles, wreaks havoc and death in a heartbeat.

[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haiti

[ii] http://tiny.cc/F3hmX

[iii] http://redgreenandblue.org/2009/05/10/haitis-poverty-is-directly-linked-to-deforestation-and-habitat-loss/

[iv] http://earthtrends.wri.org/pdf_library/country_profiles/ene_cou_332.pdf

[v] http://tiny.cc/7KE8P

[vi] http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/vis/a000000/a002600/a002640/

[vii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deforestation_in_Haiti

[viii] http://www.skeptically.org/env/id12.html

[ix] http://www.energybulletin.net/node/46311