In his column today Boris ridicules all those seeking a scapegoat in this natural calamity. He sums up with thoughts on the ascendancy of the power of nature :
There may now be six billion of us crawling over the crust of the Earth, but when things move beneath that crust, we might as well not exist for all the difference we make.
We futilely yearn for someone to blame
We can supply them with fresh water. We can get them sticking plasters and body bags, and we can ring up the helplines and pledge our cash, and so we should.
But, as we contemplate the thousands of dead on the shores of the Indian Ocean, there is one thing the whole planet wants, and that we cannot supply. We all want someone to blame. Deep in our souls, we want to find some human factor in the disaster, in the way that our species has done since – well, since the Flood.
What was the cause of that first great inundation, back there in the Old Testament, the one that Noah rode out? Genesis is clear: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was very great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart…”
And anyway, God sent a lot of rain. We find the same myth in the Greek tradition, where Zeus is fed up with the bad behaviour of men during the age of bronze, especially the conduct of Lycaon, who feeds his guests human flesh.
The king of the gods causes a flood, which Deucalion escapes by building a wooden chest, in which he floats with his wife, Pyrrha, for nine days, before the waters subside and they repopulate the planet.
In the Sumerian tradition, the Noah figure is called Utnapishtim, and the causes of the flood, again, are divine anger at human decadence; in the Akkadian myth, the man in the boat is called Atrahasis, and the cause of the flood is the anger of the god Enlil, who is annoyed at having his sleep disturbed by the booming human population.
There are similar accounts in Hindi myth, in the Norse sagas, and even among the Hopi Indians of Latin America. Scholars have speculated that it may be all a coincidence, in that human societies have tended to evolve in flood-prone areas, on the banks of rivers; but several of the myths – such as Noah, the Greek and Sumerian accounts – may hark back to a single event, a catastrophic deluge in about 5,600 BC, when the Mediterranean appears to have poured into the Black Sea.
The important point is that all peoples have reacted to memories of the flood in the same way – by ascribing some fault to human beings; and one can see why this is so psychologically satisfying. With the idea of fault go notions of human agency, and the implicit suggestion that, if we did wrong on one occasion, we can do better the next time.
If we can persuade ourselves that there is some divine justice in a terrifying flood, then we have the consolation of believing that man may be in some sense the author of his own misfortunes.
Of course, we are no longer quite so primitive as to think, with the writers of the ancient scriptures, that natural calamities may be causally connected to human bad behaviour. If there are any loonies out there who think that Phuket is being punished for being the modern Nineveh, they have had the good sense to keep it to themselves.
In this largely godless age, we have a more subtle interpretation of the relation between human excess and natural disaster. Our new high priests are the environmentalists and, when the icebergs calve early or the swallows fly the wrong way, it is they who cry woe and say that it is a judgment on us all, and our wicked ways; and that is why, in the case of a colossal undersea earthquake, you can sense the silent frustration of the told-you-so scientists.
Whatever you say about the slipping of tectonic plates on the sea-bed off Sumatra, it had nothing to do with global warming. It was not caused by decadent use of Right Guard, or George W Bush, or the flouting of the Kyoto Protocol, or inadequate enforcement of the Windows and Doors Regulation of April 2002.
There may now be six billion of us crawling over the crust of the Earth, but, when things move beneath that crust, we might as well not exist for all the difference we make.
And if the priests and the scientists have nothing useful to say on the matter, the same goes in spades for politicians and journalists. We yearn, with that immemorial human ache, to find someone to blame – but whom?
Pathetic efforts have been made already to blame the Americans, for failing to equip the littoral of the Indian Ocean with adequate tsunami sensors; and as ever, in the wake of some random and pitiless disaster, there are calls for some kind of preventive action against the next one.
A magnificent article in yesterday’s Guardian argued that a chunk of the Canary Islands should be pre-emptively detonated, in case a landslip caused a tsunami to race across the Atlantic and destroy New York.
Well, perhaps this would indeed do more good than harm, and perhaps we should see whether there are any other suspect islands – Ibiza? – that could be usefully blown up; but it would do nothing, of course, to prevent further Indonesian earthquakes, and the same point could be made to those Euro-MPs now calling for the building of some Battlestar Galactica to fight off asteroids.
One can see that this is in the spirit of the hysterical precautionary principle that now bedevils our legislation, but it is mad. It may offend our species’ sense of self-importance, but when a thunking great hunk of rock comes hurtling out of space, to splat this planet like an egg, it is time to admit gracefully that our number is up.
A long time ago, an English king made this point, in the very matter of waves. He sat on the beach and ordered the tide to withdraw. Canute was not a megalomaniac. He was just showing that there are some things that are beyond the scope of kings, or laws, or regulation.