Natural Disasters and Civilization

A fascination with danger

Disasters and death have always been an integral part of our lives, and we have a morbid fascination with both. For entertainment, we enjoy storytelling, books, films, and TV, especially where the plots involve possible misfortunes, magic, supernatural powers, aliens, murder, and death. I imagine psychologists have many theories for this, but basically it seems we only have a tenuous grip on life and so enjoy hearing of dangers that will scare us, but enjoy them because we know they are just fiction. Far fewer people actively take pleasure from reading of real- life tragedies and suffering, although we can be deeply moved by such stories and histories. Nevertheless, reality should motivate us to act, so there are times when we must face up to potential misfortunes, especially if action may help us to survive them. Therefore in our fascination with natural disasters, it is worth trying to separate those events that are inevitable and beyond our control from those that could be mitigated by thoughtful preparation. All too often we fail make any effort. Typically, we say that the preparations and looking at problems are too difficult for us; the effort should be made by the council or government; or, equally frequently, we take a lazy option and say we have no control over our lives, or all events are an act of God. Religion is then an easy way to avoid personal responsibility.

My opening chapter offered an example of natural, frequently occurring events, which were once of minor importance to our survival, but have now been placed in a very different role because of our dramatic shift to a technologically based society for the ‘advanced’ nations. Interestingly, Third World lifestyles will be far less harmed by the loss of satellites, power grids, and collapse of very large cities. Perhaps ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ has some truth.

This is actually a very basic and fairly standard forecast for a large range of serious events, both natural and constructed, because for the Third

World, a major catastrophe that undermined the technologically based nations would allow them to move into the vacant niche that would appear. The later chapters will concentrate on the negative aspects of a vast number of improvements in all aspects of our lives from agriculture, communications, medicine, transport, technologies, and warfare. In most cases, we are able to see there are clear advantages for us (including warfare, if we are the winners), but I emphasize that we invariably look at short-term gains and ignore long-term dangers. The negative aspects may well be global, but without exception they are likely to be most critical and apparent for the advanced societies. They are endangered most, not least because the ‘advanced’ nations rely heavily on technologies that are unlikely to survive globally damaging events.

This is not pessimism, as inevitably anticipation and forward planning will be valuable, as they will help us reduce the impact of various natural catastrophes. Of particular importance for humanity is that, unless the damage event is global, we need to make every effort to preserve our knowledge, skills, and information in forms that are accessible and distributed across the world. The obvious example of this defensive strategy is not to have all information stored only on an electronic system that is solely accessible by electronic communication via satellite, or on computers that need electrical power. Chapter 1 showed that for modest natural events, that are not exceptionally rare, there could be an irreversible destruction of knowledge and a loss of data, even if the mortality rate were low. At the personal level, most of us have already experienced the fact that, whilst our old electronic files and documents may exist, they are in formats and storage systems that make them inaccessible. Not only have I had precisely this problem, but as a cautious man, I have kept back-up files. Despite this wisdom, one computer had the back-up drive placed physically above the main drive. One of them jammed, overheated, and destroyed the other! (I now use separate systems for back-up.)

The dangers of advancing technologies are thus immediately apparent for all of us, and future progress in computing and electronic storage formats will make the problem worse, not better.

Many types of natural disaster have occurred in the past, and are likely to recur in the future. They are similar in that at an individual level they are outside our control, but all will devastate our lives. Natural disasters are intractable as we have no way to predict or avoid them, and must accept that they are part of the pleasure of living on this planet. For the truly global catastrophes, our hope is that some humans will survive; if not, different life forms will replace us. In planetary terms, we have not existed for very long, and our rapid rise may be matched by an equally rapid decline and exit. Only in our imagination are we the inheritors of the earth and immortal as a species. Philosophical dinosaurs probably also assumed they were the ultimate species.

 
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