The devastation unleashed by the mega earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan last Friday is one of the greatest disasters the country has faced. Yet the Japanese refuse to respond as if they are two-bit extras in a Hollywood disaster movie. By all accounts, people are behaving with courage and dignity.
Contrary to the image popularised by films such as The Day After Tomorrow, there has been no panic, no chaos and people do not appear as stunned, helpless victims driven to irrational behaviour. Instead of the scenes of anarchy familiar from such movies as Titanic, Armageddon, Twister or The Towering Inferno, we have been witnessing orderly queues and cooperation.
Yet the response of many in the West suggests that the perception of a disaster is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, there is sympathy alongside expressions of the basic human desire to help those whose lives have been overturned by this tragedy. But all too many Western observers appear more interested in using this disaster as an argument for promoting their own agenda.
Last year, American evangelist Pat Robertson represented the earthquake in Haiti as God’s punishment for the ‘pact’ that Haitians had supposedly made with the Devil. As far as one can tell, the Japanese have not yet been indicted for such evil behaviour. However, many moral entrepreneurs cannot resist the temptation to blame the Japanese for being a relatively forward-looking and technologically innovative society. Such a robust and risk-taking orientation towards life is frequently dismissed these days as ‘human arrogance’, for its presumption about controlling nature through the application of science and technology.
For those drawn towards a more backward-looking, risk-averse culture, the earthquake serves as a timely reminder that humankind is a feeble and pathetic entity when set against the might of Mother Nature. Countless disaster films have communicated the idea that disasters are simply nature’s revenge against human greed and ambition. Now some in the West see the Japanese earthquake as a reality version of such Hollywood disaster fantasies.
One writer in the UK Daily Mail has apparently read so many Hollywood scripts that he cannot distinguish between a real natural disaster and a cinematic dramatisation. In an article about the earthquake entitled ‘What fools we are to think we can tame the wrath of nature’, he writes about how humanity has planted ‘preposterous skyscrapers’ on a patch of land where little had lived for millions of years, how we ‘tweak the genes of other species to suit ourselves’ and ‘take great pride in our capacity both to protect and to overcome Nature. And then, suddenly, we wake up and realise that Nature is deeply unimpressed. We are, in fact, totally, hopelessly irrelevant after all, dwarfed by phenomena irredeemably beyond our own control.’
The representation of humanity as ‘hopelessly irrelevant’ resonates with the cultural pessimism sweeping Western societies. From this perspective, the phenomenal achievements of Japanese society since the Second World War count for nothing.
The anti-modernist frame in which Japan’s catastrophe is depicted has gained influence over recent decades. Cultural pessimism has existed as an influential force since the early twentieth century, when Oswald Spengler associated the decline of Western civilisation with the rise of modernity. He believed that human creativity expanded the gap between people and nature. The very attempt to control nature through the application of technology was a ‘monstrous’ idea as ‘old as the Faustian culture itself’. Since Spengler’s days, cultural pessimism has gone mainstream. Many environmentalists now regard the attempt by humanity to manipulate nature as a misguided attempt to dominate forces that are beyond control. From this standpoint, the tragedy afflicting Japan – with all of its technology and nuclear power stations – is apparently not just ‘natural’, but man-made.
For militant cultural pessimists, the basic human impulse to empathise with the victims of Japan’s catastrophe is trumped by the inclination to point the finger. This impulse to scapegoat and blame sometimes acquires grotesque proportions. It is as if, for some, a catastrophe serves as an argument clincher.
On the very day the earthquake struck Japan, one environmentalist website could not restrain itself from blaming humanity for the catastrophe, declaring ‘Today’s tsunami: This is what climate change looks like’. It warned that ‘a world in which we are warming the earth by pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere at a pace unprecedented in earth’s history is also a world in which the consequences of climate change could come hard and fast, including tsunamis and earthquake’. Apparently these mendacious fantasies provoked a critical reaction and a day later the title of the article was changed to ‘Does climate change mean more tsunamis?’ The author now claimed that ‘the intent of this piece isn’t to attribute today’s tragedy to climate change’, adding ‘apologies to those whom I misled with the headline’. But, of course, blaming climate change for the disaster was exactly the point of the article. It just so happened that in this case the self-serving project of scaremongering was too obvious.
Forget the films – learn from history
The experience of history shows that tragic events such as the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan bring out the best in people. Humanity has learned valuable lessons from the many catastrophes that it has faced and has demonstrated that, far from being ‘hopelessly irrelevant’, it can overcome the worst setbacks. Yes, disasters are terrible events which often encourage a sense of hopelessness, recrimination and disorientation. Often, when we are too close to a destructive episode, we feel too overwhelmed to learn from the experience. That is why it may prove useful to take a step back and ask what lessons we can draw from the history of disasters.
Disasters are as bad as it gets, but history suggests that they are not nearly as bad as we fear or imagine. Faced with the most destructive catastrophes, humanity has often managed to turn adversity into an opportunity. Time and again, our fears of natural disaster have served as a catalyst for the rise of human ingenuity. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 encouraged the application of science to the construction of a new urban infrastructure. After the terrible floods that hit Holland in 1953, the Dutch constructed an ingenious system of dykes that represents one of the technological wonders of the world.
Social reform is often the progeny of a disaster. Reformers promoted improvements in Victorian working conditions after workers died from the infectious fever that scourged the cotton mills of Manchester. City planning took off in the United States after the Chicago fire of 1871. New health-and-safety laws were passed in the USA after the 1909 Cherry mine disaster that led to the deaths of 259 workers in Illinois. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 led to a major review of passenger safety that significantly reduced the hazards of the sea.
As for Japan, the lessons learned from the terrible Kobe earthquake of 1995 led to improvements in building design and infrastructural technology that have helped reduce the potential death toll this time. There is no reason why the catastrophe that hit Japan last week cannot help us to learn further important lessons about how to do things much better in the future. The best thing that the global community can do now is to stop the Hollywood fantasies and finger-pointing and provide Japan with all the physical and moral support that it can muster.