Tsunami Disaster

In his column today Boris ridicules all those seeking a scapegoat in this natural calamity. He sums up with thoughts on the ascendancy of the power of nature :

There may now be six billion of us crawling over the crust of the Earth, but when things move beneath that crust, we might as well not exist for all the difference we make.

We futilely yearn for someone to blame

We can supply them with fresh water. We can get them sticking plasters and body bags, and we can ring up the helplines and pledge our cash, send help from our companies like Pyramid Restoration LA and so we should. They need all the help with the water damage restoration and fire damage restoration that they can get.

But, as we contemplate the thousands of dead on the shores of the Indian Ocean, there is one thing the whole planet wants, and that we cannot supply. We all want someone to blame. Deep in our souls, we want to find some human factor in the disaster, in the way that our species has done since – well, since the Flood.

What was the cause of that first great inundation, back there in the Old Testament, the one that Noah rode out? Genesis is clear: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was very great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart…”

And anyway, God sent a lot of rain. We find the same myth in the Greek tradition, where Zeus is fed up with the bad behaviour of men during the age of bronze, especially the conduct of Lycaon, who feeds his guests human flesh.

The king of the gods causes a flood, which Deucalion escapes by building a wooden chest, in which he floats with his wife, Pyrrha, for nine days, before the waters subside and they repopulate the planet.

In the Sumerian tradition, the Noah figure is called Utnapishtim, and the causes of the flood, again, are divine anger at human decadence; in the Akkadian myth, the man in the boat is called Atrahasis, and the cause of the flood is the anger of the god Enlil, who is annoyed at having his sleep disturbed by the booming human population.
There are similar accounts in Hindi myth, in the Norse sagas, and even among the Hopi Indians of Latin America. Scholars have speculated that it may be all a coincidence, in that human societies have tended to evolve in flood-prone areas, on the banks of rivers; but several of the myths – such as Noah, the Greek and Sumerian accounts – may hark back to a single event, a catastrophic deluge in about 5,600 BC, when the Mediterranean appears to have poured into the Black Sea.

The important point is that all peoples have reacted to memories of the flood in the same way – by ascribing some fault to human beings; and one can see why this is so psychologically satisfying. With the idea of fault go notions of human agency, and the implicit suggestion that, if we did wrong on one occasion, we can do better the next time.

If we can persuade ourselves that there is some divine justice in a terrifying flood, then we have the consolation of believing that man may be in some sense the author of his own misfortunes.
Of course, we are no longer quite so primitive as to think, with the writers of the ancient scriptures, that natural calamities may be causally connected to human bad behaviour. If there are any loonies out there who think that Phuket is being punished for being the modern Nineveh, they have had the good sense to keep it to themselves.

In this largely godless age, we have a more subtle interpretation of the relation between human excess and natural disaster. Our new high priests are the environmentalists and, when the icebergs calve early or the swallows fly the wrong way, it is they who cry woe and say that it is a judgment on us all, and our wicked ways; and that is why, in the case of a colossal undersea earthquake, you can sense the silent frustration of the told-you-so scientists.

Whatever you say about the slipping of tectonic plates on the sea-bed off Sumatra, it had nothing to do with global warming. It was not caused by decadent use of Right Guard, or George W Bush, or the flouting of the Kyoto Protocol, or inadequate enforcement of the Windows and Doors Regulation of April 2002.

There may now be six billion of us crawling over the crust of the Earth, but, when things move beneath that crust, we might as well not exist for all the difference we make.

And if the priests and the scientists have nothing useful to say on the matter, the same goes in spades for politicians and journalists. We yearn, with that immemorial human ache, to find someone to blame – but whom?

Pathetic efforts have been made already to blame the Americans, for failing to equip the littoral of the Indian Ocean with adequate tsunami sensors; and as ever, in the wake of some random and pitiless disaster, there are calls for some kind of preventive action against the next one.

A magnificent article in yesterday’s Guardian argued that a chunk of the Canary Islands should be pre-emptively detonated, in case a landslip caused a tsunami to race across the Atlantic and destroy New York.

Well, perhaps this would indeed do more good than harm, and perhaps we should see whether there are any other suspect islands – Ibiza? – that could be usefully blown up; but it would do nothing, of course, to prevent further Indonesian earthquakes, and the same point could be made to those Euro-MPs now calling for the building of some Battlestar Galactica to fight off asteroids.

One can see that this is in the spirit of the hysterical precautionary principle that now bedevils our legislation, but it is mad. It may offend our species’ sense of self-importance, but when a thunking great hunk of rock comes hurtling out of space, to splat this planet like an egg, it is time to admit gracefully that our number is up.

A long time ago, an English king made this point, in the very matter of waves. He sat on the beach and ordered the tide to withdraw. Canute was not a megalomaniac. He was just showing that there are some things that are beyond the scope of kings, or laws, or regulation.

22 thoughts on “Tsunami Disaster”

  1. Climate Change, Tsunamis, and The Rapture

    Oh, you are so going to love this… From Joel Makower: A neocon climatologist… has condemned “environmental experts busily creating links between the recent tsunami and global warming” (thought no such claims are being made). Others are busy blaming…

  2. Could that story of Canute possibly be true, or was it instead, one of the earliest’urban tales’.
    Such an act would indeed have been an outstanding demonstration of the higher principles to which you point, but one should not forget that the nation at the time was largely illiterate, and were therefore unlikely to see beyond a man with seaweed in his pocket scrambling about in a rock-pool looking for the royal slippers.
    An outcome more likely than fame may possibly have been a meeting of the higher nobility, shaking their heads while pouring over Canute’s family tree desperately looking for a successor before the Vikings arrived.
    The historical record is a little patchy as to what happened to Canute himself, but his genetic line is I believe still disposed to attempting the impossible. Indeed, one of his descendents even plays for Spurs…

  3. Principles can only lose their vitality when the first impressions from which they
    derive have sunk in to extinction; and it is for you to keep fanning these continually in
    to fresh flame. I am well able to form the right impression of a thing; and given this
    ability. there is no need to disquiet myself. (As for things that are beyond my
    understanding, they are no concern of understanding.) Once learn this, and you stand
    erect. A new life lies within your grasp. You have only to see things once more in the
    light of your first and earlier vision, and life begins anew.

    Marcus Aurelius.

  4. Good one Tim!

    Great Marcus Aurelius, Nick – I should read that one a few times over to grasp it well and truly

  5. Very well written post !! I’m not a big fan of Boris Johnson, but I like this post.

    Some people were saying the Tsunamis looked like they came out of the Day after tomorrow movie, which may be where the link to global warming came up.

    At times like this, we as human beings feel completely useless, and realise that despite all our ‘achievements’, we are still no match for the forces of nature.

  6. “…we are still no match for the forces of nature…”
    says ‘Boso’; but we are one of the forces of nature. BJ may be right that there’s a fruitless search for blame – but there is also now beginning a magnificent saga of human effort and willpower, a determination to save, survive and rebuild, all of it ultimately more impressive than an earthquake or its wave.

  7. Boris’s argument is fatalistic. With all due respect, I wonder if he knows very much either about local conditions in South and Southeast Asia or about tsunami.

    Given an unexpected quake of this size it would have been difficult to save Aceh, or perhaps even Phuket, but most of the casualties in Sri Lanka and India were avoidable. The frantic efforts of the Hawaii Tsunami Warning Center, without a lot of information, to warn the western Indian Ocean are a case in point. An international agency with proper access to government ministers could have distributed information. The Indonesians were monitoring the quake, it was known to be a very large one, and Sri Lanka and India had about three hours before the tsunami struck. They could have been warned.

    The disaster shows that national governments must co-operate and communicate properly with each other. In the Pacific there is an effective tsunami warning system. There should have been one in the Indian Ocean. Seismic active in Indonesia has been much studied. The dangers were known. There have been catastrophic events in the same area in the past (Toba about 500 km away was the last great ‘super-volcanic’ eruption 75,000 years ago).

    Some reports have claimed that the Indian Ocean can’t afford a natural disaster warning system. I disagree. On a national level much of the work has already been done. Indonesia has a chain of seismic stations throughout the archipelago and various research projects with the Japanese, Americans, French etc. In fact the government have a fine record of evacuating populations in advance of volcanic eruptions and avoiding loss of life.

    No, the problem is political – or should I say – politicians!

  8. One needs only to read a british romantic poet such as Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1805 Text)to understand that the forces of nature are upredicable.

  9. Our success or failure as a species depends on our ability to understand the natural world and live successfully within its constraints. The tsunami disaster is an example of a failure to do this, a reminder that they are no special guarantees for homo sapiens sapiens. We live or die on our wits.

    In the case of another great challenge to mankind – global warming – we still don’t know whether we will succeed.

    A personal note:
    I know all the countries that suffered in the disaster, some well, some not so well. Neither Aceh nor Sri Lanka were happy places in recent years. I hope some good will eventually come of what has happened when people realize the folly of ethnic conflicts and agree to work together in a spirit of real cooperation both national and international.

  10. “In classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, ‘How well he spoke,’ but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, ‘Let us march.'”
    -Adlai Stevenson

    Boris, you make us catch existential waves! Sometimes we have to surf on the edge of ourselves to find our center …

    I feel like retelling a short story of Ram Dass’ on this point. There are two waves drifting along in the ocean, one a bit bigger than the other. The bigger wave suddenly becomes very sad and upset. The smaller wave asks what’s wrong. “You don’t want to know,” the bigger wave says. “What is it?” the small wave asks. “No – really – it’s too terrible. If you knew what I knew, you’d never be happy.” The small wave persists. Finally the big wave explains: “You can’t see it, but I can see that, not too far from here, all of the waves are crashing on the shore. We are going to disappear.” The small wave says,” I can make you happy with just six words, but you have to listen very carefully to them.” The big wave doesn’t believe it — what does the small wave know that he doesn’t — but he’s desperate. After a while of doubting and mocking the small wave, the big wave finally gives in, and asks the small wave to tell him. And so the small wave says: “You’re not a wave, you’re water.”

  11. You fool Lori! If we ban oceans, we ban seaside resorts in Egypt. And where, then, will the Blair family go for their Christmas holidays?

  12. It now emerges that scientists in Indonesia and Australia were recommending a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean, as seismic activity off Java was causing concern. (Stephen Breen has an article in the Scotsman.)

    Subduction earthquakes associated with tsunami occurred off the west of Sumatra in 1797 (8.4 magnitude), 1833 (8.7), 1861 (8.5). There was also an earthquake of magnitude 7.9 in 2000. Major earthquakes are known to occur, either singly or in pairs, on average every 230 years in this area. So the disaster was not unexpected.




  13. Hi Melissa,

    It seems the ability to put links in a comment (e.g. above) has been disabled. Any particular reason? (Would other commenters like to include links, I wonder?)

    Happy New Year!

  14. Thanks Simon

    Am onto the case – will advise when it is up and running: should be fine by the morning.


  15. The truth is that Tony Blair, on holiday, en famille at Sharm El Sheikh thought he would show the family how to part the Red Sea….

    Back home at the ranch, Head Honcho Prescott was overheard to say, “Bloody whingeing boogers! Tiramisu ! I can eat five at a time AND I’m diabetic!”

    “Bloody Lascars, now… when I wuz on the boats ….”

  16. Absolute rubbish about not planning how to identify and mitigate the damage caused by natural disasters where cost-effectively possible.
    Setting up a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Oceon is relatively cheap and, with proper co-ordination, will save many lives in the future.
    Would the author advocate the abandonment of ‘earthquake-proof’ buildings in Japan or California? Or pulling down the Thames Barrier?

Comments are closed.