Shaking open our self-centered eyes
The New York Times characterizes the tsunami that struck coastal Japan as “murderous,” while a friend writes that “Planet Earth is an unfriendly place.” I rode out the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in my seventh-floor apartment in San Francisco, which experience instilled in me an appropriate terror and respect for the fluidity of so-called terra firma. The epicenter of that 6.1 earthquake was located far from my home — from which I infer that I can only imagine the power and trauma of a 9.0 quake centered close to the Japanese coast.
FOR THE RECORD
Quake: An Op-Ed article in the March 16 Section A said the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake was magnitude 6.1. The quake was magnitude 6.9.
The key is not to rid ourselves of seeing the world in human terms; we’re imaginative creatures, our imaginations are where our greatest fun lies, and besides, we comprehend the universe by placing it in a box whose boundaries and metaphors we draw from human experience. We don’t need to abandon anthropomorphism, but we desperately need a bit of distance from the tendency to see the world through our inevitably self-centered eyes.
In his 1759 novel “Candide,” the French philosopher Voltaire seized upon the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 (somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 dead) to satirize his fellow philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. Candide, Voltaire’s simple-minded hero, encounters one trauma after another, but each time he accepts the assurance of his mentor, Dr. Pangloss, that these are necessary aspects of, in the words of Leibniz, this “best of all possible worlds.”
Interpreted so simplistically, Leibniz’s thesis is easy to mock, and yet hilarious and bitterly true as “Candide” is, every page reveals the flaw in Voltaire’s attack — his outrage assumes that the universe can and should fulfill our notions of justice. To describe an earthquake as cruel (or a tsunami as murderous) assumes that good and evil are qualities established and defined by some overarching, presumably supernatural power whose ways and means lend themselves to human comprehension and even control. But who says the universe was created so that human beings might understand it — that it must make or is supposed to make sense?
Experts assure us that the damaged nuclear power plants in Japan were aged, that our plants are safe or can be retrofitted to be safe, that the implications of Japan’s “partial” meltdowns are not like Chernobyl’s, that with enough money and expertise we can insulate ourselves from our rock-and-roll world. I respond with a weary sigh born of the memory of that relatively mild 1989 quake.
Any town near the epicenter of a 9.0 earthquake is going to be swamped, one way or another. Any nuclear power plant near the epicenter of such a quake is going to sustain major damage. Construction of nuclear power facilities must take under consideration not just the shaking, the tsunami and the attendant destruction but also human greed and carelessness. Our decision to build them must proceed not from an assumption of control but its opposite: We will never be able to account for every permutation of the fantastically complex interaction of the world’s physical forces — much less the fallibilities of the plants’ operators.
We may choose to build nuclear power plants, or we may choose a view of today’s lapping waves over worries about tomorrow’s tsunami, but let’s not kid ourselves about who’s responsible for our choices and their consequences. Words like “murderous” and “unfriendly” place the blame on nature, when nature is blameless. If blame must be placed, let us appropriately assume it ourselves.
We decided to build towns on the beach and cities on the faults; we created the complex web of power-hungry machines that require ever more energy. After that honest and mindful reckoning, let us stockpile resources and make evacuation plans and fund more disaster response agencies, even as we take a long, hard, soul-searching look at our insistence on hauling out experts to justify bad ideas (e.g., building nuclear power plants near major fault zones) whenever they serve our short-term priorities.
Energy is the foundation of modern civilized life. Can we generate power cleanly and safely? Can we teach ourselves to live more frugally and use energy more wisely? We are in the midst of a great investigation of those questions. We do the Earth and ourselves the greatest disservice in imagining that addressing them lies outside our lives and choices.
Experience has taught me to have faith in a higher power, which for the sake of efficiency I call God, but my God is not the great gray-bearded guy in the sky tugging and pulling at Earth’s strings, however that vision might provide a cool explanation for earthquakes. Instead I believe in the God of Exodus 3:14, “I am what I am,” or, in another translation, “I am what is.”
“What is” includes everything — earthquakes, tsunamis, laughing babies, your little dog Spot. God’s great wisdom has left to us human beings the creation of a world in which we can devise and practice virtue. We will do ourselves and the world a great service by taking responsibility for our choices, in our language and in our lives.
Fenton Johnson’s most recent book is “Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey Among Christian and Buddhist Monks.”
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