Disasters Are Not a Grim Fate

Disasters Are Not a Grim Fate

12January 2005

publishedby www.arabnews.com 

We have already written extensively about the tsunami tragedy, and expressed our compassion, each in his own way, and every country according to its ability, for the victims and their families.

Clearly, when a disaster of such a magnitude is visited upon a part of our planet, resulting in the deaths of approximately 150,000 people in 12 nations — when, as an example, a town like Meulaboh in Indonesia, with a population of 100,000, somewhere between 25,000 and 35,000 perish in a single day — we are dealing with something that will evoke horror among us. We are all, after all, of and from each other.

A given. But it’s time we looked at this event in a dialectical context.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, droughts, storms, tornadoes, landslides, avalanches, plagues, forest fires, volcanic eruptions, name it, are nature’s way of doing business, of speaking its language, as it were. We live on a planet, as Leon Foucault discovered when he swung his pendulum inside the Pantheon in Paris in 1885, where there is a dramatic relationship between the skies above and the seemingly motionless ground beneath our feet: Well, Gee, Golly, the earth, which took more than 3.5 billion years to stitch itself together, turns on its axis!

And not only is there a link, we learned to correlate later, between cosmology and the natural order on this planet we inhabit, but a dynamic, collaborative link between the natural order and human existence.

In a dialectical sense — or if you are spiritually-minded, a teleological sense — disasters are visited upon societies for a reason, often felicitous.

Earthquakes and volcanoes? No shortage of these in human history, starting with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD that wiped out the whole of Pompeii. More recently in history, we can go from the Damghan earthquake that killed 200,000 people, and the more deadly one in Ardabil that killed another 150,000 people 37 years later (both in Iran), to the earthquake around Aleppo, Syria, in 1138, that claimed a staggering 230,000 lives.

Then there was that most powerful of volcanic eruptions on the Indonesian island of Karakatua in 1883, with an accompanying tsunami, that caused great destruction and the death of 36,000. And in our own lifetime, the quake in Kyoto, Japan, in 1995, killed 6,000, with an estimated damage to property of $100 billion.

Each one of these catastrophes was nature’s way of presenting the survivors, in a Toynbeen sense, with a case of “challenge and response” — a challenge to pick up the pieces, rebuild a loftier life and move beyond one’s fixed meaning.

Catastrophic events, whether volcanic eruptions or earthquakes, floods or storms, are the way nature speaks its idiom, the way it goes about renewing life and boosting diversity in ecosystems throughout the world, making them better for human beings and other living species.

In his book, “The Silver Lining,” with the intriguing subtitle of “The Benefits of Natural Disasters,” Professor Seth Reice, who teaches biology at the University of North Carolina, writes: “Optimists claim that every cloud has a silver lining. I go even further. Every tornado’s funnel cloud, every forest fire’s billowing smoke, indeed every disturbance, has tremendous benefits to the ecosystems it impacts. This is the real silver lining.”

Natural forces? “What we see and fear is their destructive power, yet these same disturbances help create and maintain the biodiversity that benefits both the ecosystem and ourselves,” he writes. “From producing clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, the ecosystems of the earth make human life possible.” What about plagues and diseases, though? The same dynamic of interaction, between environmental influences and human societies, prevails here as well.

Consider, if you wish, the bubonic plague, otherwise known as the Black Death, the most severe epidemic in human history, that hit Europe from 1347 to 1351.

The outbreak decimated virtually half the population of the continent — but ended up, felicitously, in reshaping European life in the years that followed.

For centuries, economic disparities among the classes held social progress back, and agriculture was appallingly inefficient, with farmers abusing and exhausting the land. As the population grew, new land was hard to find and food became more scarce.

Something had to give. And guess what? Nature intervened. The demographic disaster caused by the plague, involving the death of millions, turned out to be nature’s gift to Europeans, for once the impact of the disaster was absorbed, a fall in the price of food resulted, and the shortage of labor brought a rise in wages, which obviously translated into a rise in the standard of living of the masses.

Willy-nilly, the plague ended in introducing Europe to a new social order, for by the 16th century serf-labor, the servile status of urban workers, and even the manorial structure of power and hierarchy, had receded or weakened.

All-consuming fires, as in forest fires and urban fires? Take the Great Fire that destroyed medieval London in 1666, and within five days laid waste to 373 acres inside the city walls, destroying 13,200 homes, but, incredibly, “killed a mere 6 people,” according to Samuel Pepys, who wrote in his famous diary of the “miserable and calamitous spectacle.”

Again, we’re talking of the greatest catastrophe that could befall man – the destruction of his city. Yet, the fire, by destroying the close-packed houses and other buildings, put an end to the Great Plague that had devastated London in the previous year, killing over 18,000 people out of a population of 93,000.

It also set in motion an urban reconstruction project, overseen by the great 17th century architect, Christopher Wren, that resulted in the emergence of a quaint British capital whose face had changed forever.

And as far as forest fires are concerned, well, it’s time to retire Smokey the Bear. We all recall the devastating destruction caused, as one example, by the Great Yellowstone Fire in 1988. Yes, mother nature has something to say to us here too.

It now transpires that forest fires, whether caused by lightning or a camper flaunting his nicotine habit, help clean out undergrowth and forest floor litter; and forest seeds, that need intense heat to open, depend on fires for their species’ survival.

Moreover, fires return to earth the necessary nutrients the soil supplies for growth. It seems that after years of growing seasons, nutrients are depleted. Fires then rejuvenate the soil.

And so on. All of which is not by way of trying to lessen or, heavens, dismiss the 150,000 deaths caused by the recent tsunami tragedy in the 12 nations off the Indian Ocean and beyond, or the impact that that tragedy will have on countless people for years to come, but rather to explain that in the Holy Book, yours and mine, we are told that God has infused a reason in every act He wills on man — not, in the end, to punish but, in a dialectical or teleological sense, to reward.

With outside help, the survivors of this tragedy could rebuild better villages and towns, better schools and hospitals, better market places and government buildings, and, finally, better lives and better standards of living. Only then will the reason He endowed the tragedy with become evident.



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