Sunday, March 13, 2011

The 2011 Great Touhoku Earthquake: Civilization and Enlightenment Triumphant?

UPDATE: As the New Yorker has pointed out, early casualty estimates have turned out to be vastly short of reality.  This piece was written back when we still thought we'd dodged a bullet, and I'm going to let it stand as evidence of that moment.  More commentary on the process of unfolding knowledge, however, will be forthcoming.

Three days ago I lived through what has now been confirmed as one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history.  Luckily, I was a small but crucial distance from the epicenter, in Tokyo, but the ground here still rolled and tumbled in a way that even Japanese people had never felt before.  For the two or three minutes of the quake, I stood in the doorframe opening onto my porch, watching the tangle of power lines passing along the street sway crazily.  It seemed not just possible, but probable that one or more of the complicated systems that sustain this mass hive of human life would come crashing down, its shards spreading death and destruction.
Tokyo 1923

That didn’t happen – Tokyo stands now almost as if the quake never happened.  Just a few crumbled facades, quickly covered with neat tarps and scaffolding, remain to indicate what happened.  For the moment, we’ve been lucky – by the time it got to Tokyo, the quake was only about a 6.0 magnitude.  But there’s no guarantee that a quake of equal or greater magnitude won’t hit Tokyo more directly, within the next couple of days.  This means we could all be in a new, unpredictable situation with little or no warning.

But what exactly is that situation?  The last major Tokyo quake, the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, struck a much different society.  Compare that quake, a magnitude 7.5 which killed between 100,000 and 140,000 people out of a regional population of 7 million, and the 1995 Kobe quake, a 6.8 in which 6,000 people died out of a total population of something like 1.5 million (That’s the 2006 census number, as I couldn’t quickly find data from the mid-1990s).  The earlier quake killed something like 2% of Tokyo’s population.  The latter, less than 1/10th of 1% of Kobe’s. 

There are too many variables to make the comparison airtight, but it’s obvious that many things changed in the intervening years.   The New York Times did a good job of summing these up – they include training and preparedness, but most important of all is a dedication to buildings that can withstand major quakes.  For anyone who felt Friday’s quake, the fact that Tokyo is standing now is nothing short of a miracle – the way the earth kicked, it seemed like a power pole would have little chance to withstand it, much less a ten-story building.  Even since 1995, the government has stepped up regulations and pressure, which means that unless something pretty extreme hits Tokyo almost dead-on, the damage, while significant, is unlikely to be as cataclysmic as it was in 1923.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a fair amount about a fundamental question – is civilization itself a good or bad idea?  Much prodding has come from my (still pretty limited) reading of Jonathan Zerzan, a major figure in the movement of ‘green anarchists’ who advocate, very broadly, the reversion from advanced capitalism to some modified form of hunter-gatherer society.  As I sit here, waiting for a disastrous quake that could come at literally any second, I’m turning this idea over in my head, still unsure what the quake might make clear.  On the one hand, most of the risk of death in a quake comes from collapsing man-made structures.  More generally, we have built up such a complicated, crowded, and delicately balanced system that it is easier than ever for something like this to cause dramatic losses.  Think about what northern Japan would have been like on Friday if there were no factories, no buildings, and only a few thousand people - it’s clear there would have been nothing like the mass destruction we’ve witnessed.  Quite simply, the level of suffering would have been much, much lower.
Kobe 1995

But there is another way of looking at it, particularly if we shorten the time scale a bit.  Whether you’re talking about a feudal castle, a one-story hovel, or an early-modern brick train station, most of the structures humans have recently called home are horrendously prone to complete collapse in the face of a serious quake.  The past century has finally seen genuinely successful attempts to achieve some safety from this awesome force of nature.  This isn’t just a matter of buildings, either – we’re also now enmeshed in global networks that allow both communication and direct relief to flow into devastated areas.  This can’t save everyone, but it has already saved tens of thousands in the past few days.  And then there’s education –as the Times poignantly points out, many of the dead in the southeast Asian tsunamis of a few years ago were swept out to sea because they failed to evacuate to safety, even though they had plenty of time.  In Japan, evacuation was not complete, but it was still incredibly effective.

Obviously, we’re still far from secure (either on a day to day basis here in Tokyo, or on the larger scale of society as a whole), and it seems unlikely we ever really will be.  But it also seems undeniable that the large-scale organization of human beings, in an explicitly hierarchical way, has produced huge gains in our collective safety.  It’s also important to point out that this isn’t one of those situations where human beings are struggling to solve a problem that they themselves caused.  Tectonic activity is simply something the earth does, with or without our influence.  And while, all other things aside, the growing density of settlement makes the problem progressively worse, where do you draw that line?  Again, a primitive dwelling is at least as prone to kill its inhabitants as a more ‘civilized’ structure, as the comparison between Japan and Haiti makes tragically clear.

Sendai 2011

I’m sure that anarchists of all stripes have answers for what their ideas would mean for the long-term developments of science, of architecture, of organized education, and of communication and mutual support networks.  (And I don't mean to politicize this in some petty, short-term way - dealing with these real issues is why politics matter in the grandest possible sense, and I can't think of a more important time to talk about them).  But having (at least for now) lived through a true existential threat to one of the world’s great civilizations, I find myself comforted by the embrace of Enlightenment.  Maybe it’s the secular version of a deathbed conversion, but I would not have chosen to face the earthquake in a society less advanced, well-organized, and disciplined than Japan.


SOMA said...

Great post and I agree with your conclusion given the Japanese response.

An additional point - I think we can romanticize what we imagine a hunter-gatherer society to be a little bit much also - I guess if Japan was populated by say 10 million hunter-gatherers instead of 120 million modern Japanese I can still imagine a situation where the current disaster could have killed off as much if not more people.

We sort of seem to have this image of early humans as roving the African savannah chasing wild animals or hunting boar while the womanfolk pick berries. But human experience was pretty diverse even during this stage of our evolution. It seems in fact that humans more than anything gravitated towards water - seafood (and river and lakefood) has been a part of our diet for a very long-time. So its hard to know whether the tsunami would have caused less or more damage - I guess you could say generational learning might have helped people adapt over time....maybe.

David Z. Morris said...

Good point about the coastline hunter-gatherers, which of course would have been particularly true in Japan (Miyazaki's forest-dwellers aside). Especially for the tsunami, warning systems and evacuation training were what mattered, and these obviously both depend on sophisticated social and technological systems.