Droughts, Floods, and Wildfires: Paleo Perspectives on Disaster Law in the Anthropocene

Ryan Stoa, Florida International University College of Law


Humanity’s impact on the earth has become so pronounced that momentum is building toward adopting a new term for the modern geological age — the “Anthropocene.” The term signifies that human activity has reached a scale that it is now a planetary force capable of shaping ecosystems and natural processes. And yet, anthropocentric natural resources management and environmental lawmaking in the United States reveals a lack of control in managing natural systems and fostering resilience to extreme events. These systems do not easily conform to the whims of reactionary environmental policies. Droughts, floods, and wildfires, in particular, are often conceptualized as unforeseeable disasters when in fact their occurrence is a typical feature of the American landscape. The manner in which environmental laws have evolved to respond to these natural systems reveals a strong belief that nature can be adapted to modern human activities, instead of adapting human activities to nature. Legal frameworks are consequently reactive in disposition when control proves impossible, relying on subsidized insurance programs and disaster relief funds that do little to build resilience. This article examines contemporary legal doctrines and policies governing management of droughts, floods, and wildfires from a paleoenvironmental and paleoanthropological perspective. Hundreds of thousands of years of hunter-gatherer resilience strategies provide a conceptual model through which modern approaches and reforms can be assessed. The resilience model suggests that drought, flood, and wildfire laws can more adequately enhance societal resilience by prioritizing mobility, diversification, and awareness of changes in the surrounding environment.