When nature bites back

The disaster in Japan has taken on biblical proportions — an unfathomable threefold catastrophe the likes of which has rarely been seen in recorded human history. Just as relief agencies struggled to cope with the twinned calamities of earthquake and tsunami, nuclear reactors started to malfunction, opening another front in the crisis.

The images are heart-rending, and the scope of the tragedy nearly incomprehensible. I cannot imagine what it's like to search, hope against hope, for loved ones missing since the earth shuddered and the sea rose up.

I have been struck not just by the scale of the human tragedy, but also by the failures of essential technical systems set in place to minimize such disasters. In Haiti, a wretchedly impoverished nation where neither government nor social services function well, it's not so shocking that a 7.0 earthquake may have killed more than 300,000 people (by some estimates). But Japan, by contrast, is an industrialized nation awash in the glories of modern inventions. It was not supposed to encounter grievous destruction.

Living on an island situated at one edge of the Pacific "Ring of Fire" — a half-circle of ocean-bottom volcanoes and volatile tectonic plates — the Japanese have spent billions on warning systems, as well as drills to teach its citizens how to respond to alarms. But an earthquake that registered 9.0 — one of the most powerful ever recorded — set off a tsunami that quickly overwhelmed plans and drills. Those who lived on Japan's stricken coast would have had no more than half an hour to outrun a massive wall of water, experts say.

The Japanese are by no means unusual in their faith in modern science and its wonders. Most of us who live in the industrialized West share a deeply held, if rarely spoken, belief that technology can cure any disease, ward off any catastrophe or produce limitless bounty for our enjoyment.

That was evident last year after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, killing 11 crew members and spewing millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Many Americans expected BP or the U.S. Navy to shut down the well. Surely, they could just get a couple of Navy Seals to go down there and turn off the spigot?

The disbelief and impatience that accompanied efforts to plug the leak — after a couple of interventions failed, it was finally capped three months later — showed a nation in thrall to its technological wizardry. And we remain so. We are little more persuaded of the dangers of deep-water drilling than we were before the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Our notions of war and national defense are also heavily influenced by assumptions of technological mastery. If ours is the most powerful military on the planet, with the biggest guns, the fastest planes and the coolest laser-guided missiles, shouldn't we smash our enemies to smithereens?

Indeed, those assumptions, made by many who should know better, seem to underlie the current clamor in Congress for the United States to intervene in Libya. Among others, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., both veterans of an earlier era of warfare, have prodded the Obama administration to impose a no-fly zone to prevent Moammar Gadhafi from slaughtering his own people.

But as many Pentagon experts have pointed out, there is no risk-free way to intervene, even with the best, the biggest, the coolest military hardware. Besides, there are political implications to consider that do not give way to aerial bombardments.

Nor does Mother Nature yield to our assumptions about taming the winds and waves. We will certainly achieve more with our technology, exploring unchartered territory and conquering new frontiers. But our scientific advances will not fundamentally change humankind or neuter Mother Nature.

Some things are simply beyond our reach.

When nature bites back 03/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 19, 2011 5:31am]

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