Are we really helpless in the face of nature - or only when the politicians let us down?

It is important for us to carry on believing that we can care for each other and that we stand equal in our vulnerability

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, was in philosophical mood yesterday. "It has to be said that an earthquake and the tidal wave following, on a scale like this, is unusual," he told listeners to Radio 4's Today programme. "But it also illustrates how we are at the mercy of natural forces, no matter how much we think these days, particularly in the West, that we have greater control of our own lives through the great advances of science and technology.

"We do have greater control of our lives, but compared to the enormity of natural forces of this kind, we are literally sort of pawns in a greater universe. What has happened is terrible; it is also, I think, very humbling to see."

His banal perspective is one that is widely shared. In the absence of God's wrath as an explanation for awful events, our attempts to find meaning in natural cataclysm often sound trite. In Mr Straw's case, of course, such feeble fatalism is particularly notable, since politicians in general tend to be a breed of people who believe that they can "make a difference".

Cynics might comment that Mr Straw and his department were, in fact, too busy being humble, despite the "great advances of science and technology", to organise a decently functioning telephone helpline for those Britons seeking information about friends and relatives in south Asia.

But this would not be entirely fair. No doubt, many people at the Foreign Office were involved in more immediate matters, such as liaising with the international aid agencies now converging on these ruined lands. For the truth of the matter is that human beings are not "literally sort of pawns in a greater universe". Instead, we are powerful enough to be able to influence the future of our fellows, and of the planet itself. Many lives have already been lost in south Asia. But massive human intervention alone can save many more, and can alleviate, or even end, much suffering. At the very least, with a few keystrokes, we can unleash the "great advances of science and technology" to provide cash that will provide food, shelter, water and medicine to these far off lands in a matter of hours.

In the longer term, it can be ensured that the Indian Ocean, like the Pacific, is equipped with the wave sensors that would have picked up warnings of the tsunamis, and the communications system that would have allowed many people to be evacuated from threatened areas. As it was, staff at the Hawaiian earthquake centre, which picked up the seaquake first, simply did not know who to call with their urgent information.

One trouble with our "great advances of science and technology" is that they are far from well distributed around the planet. There's no need to feel humble in the face of this fact. It can easily be changed. Yes, it is true that all organisms that rely on Earth for sustenance are ultimately unequal to the power of shifting tectonic plates. But it is important for us to carry on believing that we can care for each other and stand equal in our vulnerability around the world.

In fact, it is at times like this, when humans see their fellows killed and maimed by forces which are not human, that they become most effective in responding to crises - at least in the short term. The unequivocal nature of what has occurred in Asia, particularly the lack of need to apportion blame, invites a response that is humanitarian in the finest sense. In the long term, however, human responses to natural disasters, or to other humans in need, are far more complex.

Our paralysis in the face of global warming is perhaps the most spectacular example of human inertia when challenged by disaster in an unknowable and therefore quite abstract form. Consider the views of President George Bush, who has of course sent his condolences on the "terrible loss of life", but has also, rather more remarkably, promised to work with the United Nations to help those hit by disaster. Since this man is a towering enemy of worldwide hopes of combatting global warming and also an implacable enemy of the UN, this is significant.

Anyway, distaste at America's unilateralist approach is not entirely justified, even if one believes the war against Iraq to have been a mistake of giant proportions. For when one considers the UN response to the genocide in Darfur, the conclusion must be that, in peacekeeping terms, the organisation is useless. Essentially, the UN cannot intervene to stop the rape, torture, slaughter and displacement, because Security Council member China has "good trade links" with Sudan, and will not back intervention. It is pathetic.

The planet's bickering inaction to the challenges of global warming, of racial genocide, and of the gross inequalities of wealthspeak more of humans as "literally sort of pawns in a greater universe" than the outpouring of sympathy and grief that the world is experiencing as it learns of the disaster that has befallen so many.

These is a growing consensus, for example, that the UN simply does not work as a world policeman, precisely because it is constantly hobbled by the sort of conflicting interests witnessed in Darfur. Some interested parties are talking up the idea of an affiliation of democratic countries - including, of course, the US, which is the only country willing substantially to fund such activity . But the failure of democracies to come together and tackle their own long-term problems suggests that even democracy is not a panacea. The discipline of regular elections tend to focus politicians on short-term results. Even China, with its westernising trading attitudes, is displaying its gross understanding of Clinton's abiding dictum - "It's the economy, stupid". Anyway, the ghastly fact is that if the US could not even win the cooperation of the democracies that coalesced around it in the wake of 11 September, this idea, too, is already doomed.

The great irony is that in many of the places where the tsunamis struck, expectations of disaster have previously been focused firmly on that inflicted by humans on other humans, in the form of terrorist atrocities. Indeed, in Indonesia, the death toll among British tourists may well have been higher had there not for some time been Foreign Office warnings against travel in such unstable areas. Indeed, when one surveys the fearful politics that have heralded the "war on terror" and compares them to the apolitical, humanitarian responses under way in Asia, one cannot help feeling that a more "humble" response from world leaders might be quite welcome.

When disaster strikes as a result of a morally bankrupt, hateful and insane human agency, the politicians insist that they will never surrender, that they refuse to negotiate. When disaster strikes as a result of natural force, they whisper homilies about the helplessness of humans, just when humans are helping each other the most. But basically, the day before this disaster, the world was divided in just the same way - between those who need help and those in a position to offer it. As long as humanity remembers this, there will be no pawns among us.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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