Having grown up in the “Ring of Fire“, I have to admit that the recent spate of earthquakes (in the last two years or so) has got me a bit nervous. This morning’s images in particular – floating fire, buildings disappearing into whirlpools, cars floating down highways – make the possibilities of my city all the more real. Living on a fault line, with natural gas to our homes, on a petulant coast – there is only so much being prepared for an earthquake (by stockpiling food and water) is going to do if the gas lines rupture and the oceans heave. In fact, I’m finding myself a bit annoyed with the admonishments on Facebook this morning to “be prepared” as though the devastation rocking northern Japan has something to do with people’s lack of readiness rather than nature’s most powerful work in living memory.
But that’s human nature isn’t it? To pretend we can exert control over that which is uncontrollable and unpredictable. To refuse the reality that some things happen to people for which they are *not* to blame. It allows us to set ourselves up as the survivor in both practical and moral terms – it gives us some small measure of internal peace to think that *we* won’t be like *them* because of our own individual responses.
What I think will be instructive when the damage from the largest earthquake to hit Japan in recorded history, will be to look at how collective preparedness makes for an entirely different landcape in that country as opposed to the devastating earthquake in Haiti last year. Already it is apparent that the seismic upgrading of much of Japan in the past two decades has meant that this massive event is not having the impact that it otherwise would have in cities like Tokyo where building shook from the coastal tremors, but otherwise have not sustained damage. Whereas the Haiti earthquake killed hundreds of thousands, the earthquake we are watching today is estimated to kill hundreds (though that number is entirely up in the air at the moment). And where it took the Haiti government days to pull together a functional respose, the Japanese Prime Minister was ordering the military into affected areas within hours of the initial shocks.
Thus – the difference between an earthquake in a wealthy country and one in a poor country. Not to mention the difference between a country that has invested tax dollars in preparedness for such an event, and one that has been repeatedly robbed of its natural treasures without any security put back into national infrastructure. There’s a very good blog-article on the New Yorker site this morning discussing just this – that earthquakes are a political-economic event as much as they are a natural event.
On the BC coast, the battle for seismic upgrading of our schools and public institutions has long been on the agenda, fought for by concerned parents and communities – and while many schools and public buildings have undergone upgrading – progress is slower than a lot of people would like. Because they are expensive. Because they use up tax dollars that the province is busy giving back to corporations instead of using to secure our communities in the event of the worst sort of natural event. Of course, this upgrade-deferral can only really go on as long as there is no disaster here, and as long as no one thinks about it too much when an event happens overseas.
Now, I’m all for personal preparedness and I’ve got a basement full of food and water in case of any number of potential disasters that could befall us….. but it’s curious to me during times like this how many of us believe we can control our fates individually while failing to demand the collective action to lessen impacts overall. That collective action is tax-based – both in preparing our roads and buildings and in supporting our emergency services who will come out in full force should the worst occur. And that’s something worth remembering now – as we go into a period of provincial and municipal elections – we have to ask ourselves what kindof an earthquake experience we want to have here at home – as we extend our support and sympathy to those abroad.