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October 5, 2011 / Tobin Craig

Natural Disasters in the Age of the World Picture

An extraordinary trial has just begun in Italy over the L’Aquila earthquake. In the days leading up to the quake, the region had been experiencing a number of tremors — which is sometimes indicative of an impending quake, and sometimes indicative that a seismically active region is stabilizing. A technician working in a physics lab (one Mr. Guiliani), however, who claims to have developed a new method for predicting earthquakes based on radon emissions, made a series of public pronouncements essentially predicting an earthquake. This induced a minor local panic. An emergency meeting of the “Civil Protection Department’s national commission for the forecast and prevention of major risks/hazards” is called. They deliberate, and find, essentially, that maybe there is a danger, maybe there isn’t. The vice president of the Department (not the commission), however, one Dr De Bernardinis, announces publicly, “The scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable.” Less than a week later 309 people are killed in the earthquake. 6 scientists are now on trial for manslaughter.

Predictably, the case has become a flashpoint of controversy. How can you blame the scientists for not predicting the exact time and locale for an earthquake? On the other hand, it is pretty clear that tremors do sometime presage major quakes, and so the public ought to have been alerted and encouraged to be ready. Perhaps Dr. De B.  should have been a bit more cautious and precise.  Perhaps the serious risks/major hazards commission should have been more cautious and precise, not distracted by Mr. Guiliani’s pronouncements and the desire to defend their status against an outsider/amateur.

What interests me in this case, however, is what it indicates about the expectations of citizens in the developed world, and our underlying attitude towards the natural world.  What we call natural disasters are, of course, coeval with man.  Our experience of and response to natural disasters, however, points to what is distinctive about our civilization, that is, to our being as creatures of a techno-scientific world.  Accustomed from birth to an orderly world, made safe and regular by means of science and technology, we are induced into a forgetfulness about the harshness of our condition.  We are thus particularly vulnerable to natural disasters — I mean spiritually vulnerable to them.  They bother us in a way that is distinctive.  Natural disasters ANGER us.  But it is irrational to be angry at nature, for we believe nature to be bereft of intelligence or will or concern for us.  (If God wasn’t dead, we would be angry or perplexed at God.)  Our indignation thus turns on ourselves — we should know better, we should have done more, after all, if we don’t look after ourselves, no one else will, certainly nature is not looking out for us.  We believe, in other words, that total mastery or control of the non-human whole is ours for the taking: that we can have it and that justice demands that we take it.  When it eludes us, it is only because we’ve failed somehow (weren’t sufficiently precise or cautious) or aren’t yet where we should be (equipped with perfect earthquake prediction models).  In other words, death (the basic natural disaster) is always a matter of human failure, and therefore something to be indignant about.

Is an alternative attitude to nature and to our mortality possible within the world of modern natural science?  Can we make our peace with nature, with our own nature, and therefore our limits, without sacrificing the intellect, that is, turning a blind eye to what our science teaches us about our world?


Voltaire’s Candide

Rousseau’s Letter to Voltaire

Heidegger’s “The Age of the World Picture”

On the L’Aquila trial:


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