Humbled by Nature's Power By William Rees-Mogg, The Times of London December 27, 2004 WE SHALL never know how many people have been killed by the great tsunami in the Indian Ocean. No doubt the number of identified casualties will continue to rise, but there will be many more who are missing, and there will be grieving families who gradually have to give up hope. This is a human tragedy on a huge scale, caused by the action of Nature rather than Man. Even in Britain, so far away from the epicentre, there will be many families who will be anxious or maybe grieving for those who will not come back from a pleasant Christmas holiday. One needs to think first of the losses and of the grief. It is said to be the worst earthquake in 40 years. Yet in its scale, and in the mixture of damage from the earthquake itself, and that done by the sea, it is the most awe-inspiring earthquake that has happened in a lifetime. No previous earthquake I can remember has destroyed property and killed people across a whole ocean. The earthquake itself is said to be 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) in length; the seabed was opened up as though by a zip fastener; this event threw up a gigantic wave three storeys high, which travelled for thousands of kilometres. One can understand what happened as a result of the stress between two continental plates, but one can hardly imagine it. The force generated must have been as great as that of a thousand nuclear bombs; no doubt that can be estimated, and will be. It is not only the level of casualties that impresses human consciousness. We are accustomed to millions being killed in major wars even the Iran-Iraq war, of which the world took surprisingly little notice at the time, caused well over a million deaths. Aids kills by the millions each year in Africa alone, and has killed a total of tens of millions already. When all the figures are added up, it looks as though the tsunami may have killed a few tens of thousands. The statistics in themselves are not what shock us. It is the scale and force of the event, and its geographic character. If such an earthquake happened in Europe, we would be able to trace the fault from London to Rome, or to Berlin. If a tsunami ten metres high stormed its way up the Thames, half of London would be under water. If such an earthquake ripped through the San Andreas fault in California, it would virtually tear the state in two, and cause trillions rather than billions of dollars of damage. We view with awe a release of power on this scale. We know that this power is greater than that of our species nature holds us in its hands. We may be able to mitigate some of the consequences; in some cases we may be able to give advance warning of the threat; but we are not in control; the tsunami has demonstrated this ancient truth. There are lessons. First, no doubt, is that we should extend through the Indian Ocean, and other areas of risk, the scientific warning system that exists in the Pacific. If an alert coastguard in Sumatra had observed the earthquake, he would not have known who to warn in India or Sri Lanka, though they could have had a couple of hours warning. In the wealthier Pacific area there is an organised warning system, which has reduced the casualties from tsunami. The world will no doubt give aid to the areas that have been hardest hit. In Sri Lanka alone it is reported that a million coastal people have suffered serious material damage. The world needs to be generous. By and large, the tragedy has fallen on poor countries and tourists, not directly on the inhabitants of the wealthiest cities of the world. This could have happened to Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, or, less probably, to London. That is one reason why the great cities should dig deep in their pockets. They have been spared. The disaster should also impel all the nations of the world to give further thought to the needs of the environment. As it happens, global warming seems to have had little or no connection with this event. But the tsunami did mimic some of the effects that global warming is now expected to have. The great wave, in an hour, told the world where sea levels might be in a century, or perhaps in a couple of centuries. If the sea rises, it will flood the coastal areas of low-lying countries. Mankind has built a fragile home for itself, with the growth of the worlds population, the exploitation of natural resources, the spread of diseases from overcrowding and modern transport, the dependence on modern technologies, some of which are very vulnerable to upheaval, and the tall buildings which are open to terrorism. That fragility is the real danger of the modern world. Even since 9/11 the great cities of the world have continued to build symbolic skyscrapers that are almost as vulnerable as the twin towers in New York. The biblical story of the Tower of Babel had been the blueprint for modern cities. The tsunami mocks this pride. Perhaps our modern skyscrapers would withstand, as some tall hotels have withstood, the rush of the water. But our global system has an arrogance that challenges the forces of nature. It is as though mankind had decided to tweak nature by the nose to show who is the boss. The tsunami has demonstrated that nature, and not mankind, is still the real master. It is ironic that the poor of the earth have taken the brunt of the suffering. No doubt there were many very wealthy people among the tourists, but the tourists have still had their houses to return to, if they survived the tsunami itself. If a million people have had their homes damaged or destroyed in Sri Lanka, there will be another million on the coast of India and more again in Thailand and Indonesia, perhaps in the Maldives as well. They will get some aid, but nothing like enough to make good their probable losses. The proud have had a lesson, but at the expense of the humble people of the earth. Nature can be a brutal moralist.