Of all the inadequate descriptions of the destruction caused by the tsunami in Japan, "Biblical" is perhaps the most instructive. When I first saw the scenes of water demolishing everything in its way, I felt both terror and pity for those people unseen in cars and trucks, trying in vain to get out of the way. But perhaps my strongest emotion was one of awe. Like the Old Testament God, nature showed her capacity to destroy in an instant what human beings had worked for years to build, taking away life with a dreadful efficiency.
There are many who think that the moral of the story is that we should treat nature with the same kind of reverence and respect that has traditionally been reserved for God. That would be a mistake. For, like some primitive notions of God, what was in this case awesome is also awful. A vengeful, callous God would not deserve to be worshipped. In Japan, nature has shown that she too is no benevolent Gaia, before which we should bow down. Rather, she is indifferent to us and our welfare. We should respect her as a fighter respects the strength and skills of an opponent, not as a pupil respects the knowledge and wisdom of her master.
Consider, for instance, the oft-repeated idea that a disaster like this shows us that we cannot "defy" or "tame" nature. What on earth could this possibly mean? In what way did the citizens of Sendai defy nature? By building homes? In that case, let us all sleep under the stars. By daring to live in a place where natural disasters occur from time to time? Then let no one live where tornadoes, hurricanes or earthquakes ever occur, which is a large part of the world. The suggestions are of course absurd. None of the victims in Japan were punished for defying nature: nature just took a wild, random swipe at them.
A more moderate version of the "defying nature" idea is that there is a simple, practical use of the distinction between going with or against the grain of nature. In reality, this distinction is of limited use, and perhaps even incoherent. If going with the grain of nature means doing nothing to alter its course, then even the simplest act of taking a seed and planting it defies nature. Even a beaver who builds a dam goes against the grain of nature in this sense.
If going with nature's grain means not trying to defy the laws of nature, then a lot of modern technology does better on that score than traditional practices. A very detailed and sophisticated understanding of the lawsof physics is required to build aspace shuttle and send it to space and back, for example. A Nasa engineer who defied the laws of nature would not be able to build anything that worked.
In contrast, people who dance for rain or pray that they may be saved from natural disaster are the ones defying the laws of nature, imagining that invocations and divine desires can alter nature's course, or protect us from its worst effects.
If there is a way in which some do defy the true nature of nature, it is to imagine that it is benign. It should not take a tsunami to show us that is romantic nonsense. Disease and disaster are permanent and recurring features of life on earth. Human beings cause far too much harm, but we are far from being to blame for everything.
That is not to say nature is malign either. Rather, Gaia is simply amoral. Nature is simply what is and has nothing to do with what ought to be. We may well be in awe of her, but we should not revere her. If anything deserves reverence it is life, human life in particular, and we do not serve the cause of protecting and enabling it to flourish by leaving nature to take its blind course.
What people call defying nature is usually no more than human beings trying to stop its most harmful effects. This is not hubris, but a justified attempt to reduce suffering and improve the conditions for human life.
It is why people put roofs on their homes, purify their water, or use mechanical transport to shrink the otherwise limiting aspects of distance. No one would object to these things, but still many have a sense that sometimes we go too far. But what is too far? It is surely not a matter of technological sophistication. An elaborate technology that cured cancer, for instance, would be welcomed, not rejected for being excessively artificial.
The only sense of going "too far" which makes sense is to do something that just doesn't work. Building very tall buildings along fault lines may well be going too far, for instance, simply because we can't be confident enough that they will withstand a quake. Making agriculture reliant on fossil fuel extraction may be going too far because the supply is not secure enough, and extracting it has other harmful effects.
In every case where it can truthfully be said that we are not properly respectful of nature, it is a practical matter of not having worked things out properly, not some philosophical – or perhaps theological – failure to treat nature with reverence.
There seems to be a yearning in the developed West for some kind of simpler, purer relationship with the natural world. Many have a strong feeling that we have become too alienated from nature, and that this will be our undoing. If there is any truth in this, it is not to be found in a belief that technology, human ambition and innovation are the problem. It is not hubris to want to battle against the worst nature can throw at us. But it is foolishness to forget that tectonic plates and weather systems can muster more force than most of us can imagine.
This is not simply an abstract issue. When thinking about what lessons have to be learnt from disasters like the current one, it gets us nowhere to think, in simplistic terms, that the future will be brighter if only we recover a more primal respect for nature.
Around the world, time and again, natural disasters tend to kill more people in countries which are poorer and have fewer of the modern resources that science and innovation have made possible. If Japan is to be saved from a repeat of this disaster, of course it has to take full account of how powerful earthquakes can be, and accept it cannot stop them. But that alone tells us nothing at all about what has to be done, other than not bury our heads in the sand.
The only thing that could make next time better is if we use our understanding of the natural world and apply it to our technologies, to better defend ourselves against the caprice of nature and be better equipped to clean up the mess she thoughtlessly leaves behind.
Julian Baggini is editor-in-chief of The Philosophers' Magazine. His latest book is 'The Ego Trick' (Granta, 2011)
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