In The Daily Telegraph yester-day (March 14, 2011) Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, relates that, on Friday morning, a caller to a London radio station said something as illuminating as it was breathtakingly stupid : he attributed the magnitude-8.9 earthquake that had occurred shortly before six-o’clock London time off the coast of Japan to man’s constantly digging for oil and the planet’s anger at the intrusion. Apparently the caller likened the Earth to “some vast animal shrugging its pelt at an irritating flea-bite” – mankind being the flea.
Pointing out the absence of a connexion between man’s “feeble scrapings and probings for oil [and] other minerals”, he goes on to say that the appalling events of the past few days are just a manifestation of the story of mind-boggling violence that is geology. Why did India collide with the rest of Asia, pushing up the land now known as the Himalayas ; or South America split off from Africa and the rest of Gondwanaland ? Surely not because some pre-historic humans were fossicking around for oil.
But, however absurd what the man was saying, it was deeply revealing : of our arrogance in assuming that, no matter what the catastrophe, it is all our fault.
Around the middle of the second millennium b.c. a huge volcanic eruption (believed the largest in recorded history), accompanied by a tsunami that might – depending upon which historiographers you believe – have destroyed the Minoan civilization, gave birth to the caldera that divides the island of Thera (Santorini) in the Mediterranean. Boris tells us that it was obvious to the ancients that this catastrophe was due to the misbehaviour of the people of Atlantis, which had “got uppity and dissed Poseidon”, as Heroditus put it (well, perhaps that was Boris’s diction) ; inevitably Poseidon hit back.
Around 760 b.c. an earthquake shook the Eastern Mediterranean from Egypt to Asia Minor ; why ? Silly question, really : it was because King Uzziah of Judah, in violation of orthodoxy, was burning incense in the Temple, when all knew that this practice was reserved to the priesthood and the descendants of Aaron. Yahweh, therefore, sent an earthquake (and leprosy for the foolish Uzziah for good measure).
Our devotion to the principle of post hoc ergo propter hoc is undiminished : when Phuket in Thailand suffered – along with many around the Indian Ocean – in the 2004 tsunami, “religious nut-jobs” surfaced all over the place to say that it had been divine retribution for Phuket’s sex tourism. Always it’s our fault ! Many are the terrors of the Earth, says the chorus in one of the plays of Sophocles, and nothing more terrible than man.
Boris thinks the only good thing about an earthquake or a tsunami on the scale of those that hit Japan on Friday is its reminding us that even Sophocles could spout bilge. Many things are more terrifying than man : asteroids, earthquakes, tsunamis ; we are trivial as we crawl upon the thin integument of this spheroid of molten rock. Most events on Earth are simply nothing to do with the actions of man : not his lust for oil, his banking system or his failure to invest in early-warning systems. Nor are they a consequence of slowness in meeting the Kyoto CO2 targets or of any other any other supposed human immorality.
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|Over the next few days, Boris warns us, we should watch out for the usual preachers and moralizers trying to use Japan’s misfortune to further their campaigns. First off the blocks : the anti-nuke lobby, the Atomkraft-nein-danke brigade, forever convinced that any kind of nuclear fission – tampering with the building blocks of the universe – invites cosmic retribution. He doesn’t want to minimize the problems facing the Japanese and hopes they’ll be solved quickly ; there is no connexion, however, between the difficulty of running nuclear power stations in an earthquake zone and the proposed development of nuclear power in the United Kingdom, something becoming ever more vital.|
In the face of instability in North Africa and the Near- and Middle-East (with the price of oil likely to continue to climb), he points out, it would be insane to abandon one of the few available – and realistic – alternatives to oil and coal : what, he asks, would the oil price do then ?
Our response to the events in Japan should be all the help we can offer. This is not, however, a verdict on man’s activities ; we don’t have to sacrifice a hecatomb to Poseidon or lead 100 garlanded men and maidens to the top of a pyramid and excise their still beating hearts. Nor must we stop drilling for oil or dismantle our efforts to provide safe nuclear power for a prosperous future.
Perhaps rather puzzling is the start of his last sentence : “There is no rhyme or reason to an earthquake ...” (There is actually a very good geological reason for an earthquake.) The latter half of the sentence fortunately makes more sense : “... we should ... abandon our infantile delusion that we are the cause and maker of everything.”
Boris writes for The Daily Telegraph on Mondays.