Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Lesson of the Tsunami

The Life or Death Value of Industrial Civilization

by Robert Tracinski

The South Asian tsunami is a disaster of historic proportions; I doubt that so many people have ever been killed by a single event during a single day. It is an awesome demonstration of the potential destructive power of nature.

But conservative columnist Peggy Noonan got it exactly wrong when she summed up the meaning of the South Asian tsunami disaster: "Call it the force of nature or the hand of God or both; call it geological inevitability or the oldest story in the world (life is tragic) reasserting itself on a broader-than-usual level—however you see the earthquake and the tsunami, it reminds you that man is not in charge."

The tsunami does not demonstrate that man is helpless before nature; it demonstrates the opposite.

It demonstrates this, tragically, by contrast: the contrast between the resilience of the industrial world in the face of natural disaster—and the prostrate helplessness of a pre-industrial society.

Consider the tsunami warning system in the Pacific, built by the US and other industrialized nations on the Pacific Rim. Had such a system been in place in the Indian Ocean, the people on its shores could have been given an hour or more of advance warning to flee to high ground, and many thousands of lives could have been saved.

The Pacific warning system was made possible by a whole context of Western scientific and technological advances, and more: it is the result of decades of foresight and advance planning—one of the few cases in which a government agency (in this case, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) has actually performed a valuable service.

But protecting humans from natural disasters depends on much more than this warning system.

One of the reasons there was no warning for nations on the Indian Ocean is that there was no one to warn, and no way to warn them. The potential for a tsunami was grasped by monitors in the Pacific warning network, but they had no contact names for officials responsible for disaster planning in most Indian Ocean nations. And even if they had been able to contact someone, the government officials often had no way to contact the potential victims of the tsunamis. Many of them—especially in Indonesia, which was closest to the epicenter and where the vast majority of deaths occurred—lived in primitive coastal fishing villages with little access to televisions, radios, or telephones.

And when disaster strikes, these nations have little infrastructure for restoring electrical power, for delivering food and clean water—and therefore for preventing the spread of disease that now threatens to increase the death toll of this catastrophe.

A more recent report indicates another benefit of Western wealth and technology: a vast financial system that provides for far more effective disaster relief than we could ever hope for from charities or UN aid agencies: the capitalist disaster relief provided by insurance. By one estimate, insurance companies paid out $56 billion last year in claims for hurricanes that struck the relatively well-insured people on the shores of the Atlantic—far more than the aid so far pledged for tsunami victims. It is an impressive safety net that is already bought and paid for—made possible by the long-term planning that is normal in an advanced capitalist financial system.

The underlying lesson is the importance of man's technological and industrial conquest of nature—and of his ever-expanding conquest of nature. It is possible for people to survive for a while in societies with minimal technological and economic development—to "live in harmony with nature," as the environmentalists like to describe it in their utopian fantasies. But as this tsunami has demonstrated, such societies are always living on the edge of the abyss. They can survive—until the next tidal wave, volcanic eruption, flood, draught, or plague comes along to wipe them out. Whether that will happen every ten years or every hundred years is a matter of random chance.

When we see this, we should feel sympathy for the plight of the people who have died. Their societies tragically lacked the reserves of knowledge, technology, and wealth to protect them. And for that reason, we should also say a quiet "thank you" to the centuries of philosophers, scientists, inventors, financiers, and industrialists who have provided us with a far greater degree of security from nature—who allow us, not to scrape by precariously between cataclysms, but to make ourselves ever more secure from nature's capricious power.