Anthropogenic earthquakes ?!


aerial view of fukushima-daiichi

Boris Johnson points out the stupidity of man’s blaming himself for natural disasters


In The Daily Telegraph yester-day (March 14, 2011) Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, relates that, on Friday morning, a caller to a London radio station said something as illuminating as it was breathtakingly stupid :  he attributed the magnitude-8.9 earthquake that had occurred shortly before six-o’clock London time off the coast of Japan to man’s constantly digging for oil and the planet’s anger at the intrusion.  Apparently the caller likened the Earth to “some vast animal shrugging its pelt at an irritating flea-bite” – mankind being the flea.

Pointing out the absence of a connexion between man’s “feeble scrapings and probings for oil [and] other minerals”, he goes on to say that the appalling events of the past few days are just a manifestation of the story of mind-boggling violence that is geology.  Why did India collide with the rest of Asia, pushing up the land now known as the Himalayas ;  or South America split off from Africa and the rest of Gondwanaland ?  Surely not because some pre-historic humans were fossicking around for oil.

But, however absurd what the man was saying, it was deeply revealing :  of our arrogance in assuming that, no matter what the catastrophe, it is all our fault.

Around the middle of the second millennium b.c. a huge volcanic eruption (believed the largest in recorded history), accompanied by a tsunami that might – depending upon which historiographers you believe – have destroyed the Minoan civilization, gave birth to the caldera that divides the island of Thera (Santorini) in the Medi­ter­ra­nean.  Boris tells us that it was obvious to the ancients that this catastrophe was due to the misbehaviour of the people of Atlantis, which had “got uppity and dissed Poseidon”, as Heroditus put it (well, perhaps that was Boris’s diction) ;  inevitably Poseidon hit back.

Around 760 b.c. an earthquake shook the Eastern Medi­ter­ra­nean from Egypt to Asia Minor ;  why ?  Silly question, really :  it was because King Uzziah of Judah, in violation of orthodoxy, was burning incense in the Temple, when all knew that this practice was reserved to the priesthood and the descendants of Aaron.  Yahweh, therefore, sent an earthquake (and leprosy for the foolish Uzziah for good measure).

Our devotion to the principle of post hoc ergo propter hoc is undiminished :  when Phuket in Thailand suffered – along with many around the Indian Ocean – in the 2004 tsunami, “religious nut-jobs” surfaced all over the place to say that it had been divine retribution for Phuket’s sex tourism.  Always it’s our fault !  Many are the terrors of the Earth, says the chorus in one of the plays of Sophocles, and nothing more terrible than man.

Boris thinks the only good thing about an earthquake or a tsunami on the scale of those that hit Japan on Friday is its reminding us that even Sophocles could spout bilge.  Many things are more terrifying than man :  asteroids, earthquakes, tsunamis ;  we are trivial as we crawl upon the thin integument of this spheroid of molten rock.  Most events on Earth are simply nothing to do with the actions of man :  not his lust for oil, his banking system or his failure to invest in early-warning systems.  Nor are they a consequence of slowness in meeting the Kyoto CO2 targets or of any other any other supposed human immorality.

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blast at fukushima-daiichi

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Over the next few days, Boris warns us, we should watch out for the usual preachers and moralizers trying to use Japan’s misfortune to further their campaigns.  First off the blocks :  the anti-nuke lobby, the Atomkraft-nein-danke brigade, forever convinced that any kind of nuclear fission – tampering with the building blocks of the universe – invites cosmic retribution.  He doesn’t want to minimize the problems facing the Japanese and hopes they’ll be solved quickly ;  there is no connexion, however, between the difficulty of running nuclear power stations in an earthquake zone and the proposed development of nuclear power in the United Kingdom, something becoming ever more vital.

In the face of instability in North Africa and the Near- and Middle-East (with the price of oil likely to continue to climb), he points out, it would be insane to abandon one of the few available – and realistic – alter­na­tives to oil and coal :  what, he asks, would the oil price do then ?

Our response to the events in Japan should be all the help we can offer.  This is not, however, a verdict on man’s activities ;  we don’t have to sacrifice a hecatomb to Poseidon or lead 100 garlanded men and maidens to the top of a pyramid and excise their still beating hearts.  Nor must we stop drilling for oil or dismantle our efforts to provide safe nuclear power for a prosperous future.

Perhaps rather puzzling is the start of his last sentence :  “There is no rhyme or reason to an earthquake …” (There is actually a very good geological reason for an earthquake.)  The latter half of the sentence fortunately makes more sense :  “… we should … abandon our infantile delusion that we are the cause and maker of everything.”


Boris writes for The Daily Telegraph on Mondays.


14 thoughts on “Anthropogenic earthquakes ?!”

  1. At times of apalling tragedy like this, why can’t people just concentrate on exercising their compassion muscles, rather than wittering on like the daft old sooth sayer in Up “Pompei”?

  2. The ‘daft old soothsayer’ in ‘Up Pompei’ used to say, ‘Woe, woe and thrice, woe!’ She would say this, if I recall correctly about everything and anything.
    I think that ‘Woe, woe and thrice, Woe!’ would be an appropriate addition to the masthead of The Guardian.

  3. Well Mr Johnson, it’s sad to say but true we are our worst enemy. Putting humans in charge of dangerous materials, is a recipe for disaster and doing so in this particular financial environment, where profits are of the utmost importance, more so than human life. Maybe we can do all these things when we have grown up and put the bogeyman to sleep, “a long deep sleep”, and run our world on scientific fact. Who knows maybe then we can play with the nuke.
    Regards R. Grace

  4. Predictable tripe from Bozza. Nuclear power is dangerous beyond imagination. Nothing to do with the gods getting angry, just mankind getting stupid and thinking that it can be made risk free.

  5. Well, the Mayor’s acknowledgment of the triviality of mankind is an encouraging first step.

    What we need now from him is a comprehensive renunciation of the anthropogenic-global-warming fraud ;  we need him to take the side of true science and to denounce the politically motivated promoters of the fraud — the politicians and their I.P.C.C., the ‘climate scientists’ in reality benefit scroungers and the ‘green’ industrialists cashing in on tax-payers’ ignorance of science — and to form a Tory political faction within the Conservative party.


  6. surely was obviously Poseidon God of the sea and “earth-shaker”. he was also brother of Hades was he not? pretty obvious I would have thought

    polytheists of the world unite!!

  7. “…a Tory political faction within the Conservative party”.
    Pericles, what a good idea! We haven’t had that spirit here since…1979? But that was a long time ago, in a country that seems far, far away.

  8. There have only been three disasters at nuclear power stations in 60 years – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. The number of people harmed by the fallout from these three disasters had been very precisely measured. It is nil. Only those close by, who were exposed to very high levels of radiation have been killed or harmed.

    Far from being dangerous beyond imagining, nuclear power has proved to be safe beyond imagining. Unfortunately, the word ‘nuclear’ produces the same panic reaction in many people that the word ‘bath’ sometimes produces in a labrador.

  9. Actually, Ed, I think we really have to go back to 1963 and Alec Douglas Home to find a true Tory prime minister.

    Although generally agreeing with the point made by Tiresias, I’d point out that those sent by the Russian (soviet) government in to Chernobyl to deal with the problem suffered as heroes because exposed to the radiation present at the time ;  moreover there are still parts of Western Europe contaminated by the fall-out.

    Interesting was the fact that so much wildlife survived close to the plant.

    Three-Mile-Island was a disaster more in the pages of the press than at Harrisburg ;  as to the eventual outcome of Fukushima :  we shall have to wait and see.  What we do know is that, although a disaster (especially for the nuclear-power industry and therefore the economy generally), it is not one on the scale of Chernobyl.

    I see that to-day the Chancellor of Germany has decided — apparently for the purpose of securing votes in a close election in Baden-Württemberg but in fact why ?  to accelerate the diversion of tax-payers’ funds to the ‘green industry’ ? — to order the early closure of several nuclear power stations.


  10. If it was true that human behavior caused natural disasters then you would think that the nuclear testing that went on between 1945 and 1998 where 2053 bombs were tested would of caused a good few earthquakes, tsunamis and what not.

  11. Boris,
    Love your work, mate, but this is just so wrong-headed I believe you have proven that CP Snow was completely right about the two cultures. How can you not get it? It is not just a matter of poetic logic.

    Science involves testing hypotheses for how closely they predict what will actually happen. Our interactions with the real world can be as beautiful as gardening and as destructive as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Find a hypothesis that better explains global warming phenomena than the greenhouse effect and you will have a valid audience.


  12. Actually I should have first said that I strongly agree with your point about the gods punishing us for our misdeeds. It reminds me of one of our Christian members of parliament praying for rain on the date of the first Sydney Mardi Gras. BTW, he (or He) failed. I was more worried about your implicit attack on the ‘global warming conspiracy’.

    We live in a real world where things happen quite independently of whatever humans do. Other things, we do have an effect on. We had better accept some collective responsibility for planning carefully, because that can be easier than fixing what we bugger up.

    Do we have the ability to manage nuclear power safely? If the Japanese can’t manage it, may it please the gods to have mercy on us. In the meantime the Japanese have earned our tears, admiration and help.

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