Tsunami coming for us all

Caspar Henderson
7 January 2005

The tsunami that swept across the Indian ocean on 26 December 2004 was cataclysmic. Our Globalisation Editor Caspar Henderson asks what it means for the future of an interconnected world.

Over half the world’s population lives within 60 km (40 miles) of a shoreline. Our arts and cultures editors explored this border in its realities and our imagination, in over thirty compelling essays with poems pictures. Everything begins… and ends… on the beach. For subscribers only but take a look .

In one of the photographs of the aftermath of the recent seaquake, a Sumatran fisherman stands weeping inconsolably on the place where his house used to be and where five of his seven children died. In the background, most of what was once a village is a flattened mess. Beyond the former village the shoreline is also visible, and in contrast the devastated human dwellings a significant number of trees still remain upright and very much alive along its edge.

Millions of those indirectly as well as directly affected will make political or even religious points. I believe there is an important lesson for us all, however far away we may be, in the trees behind that Sumatran fisherman. It needs to be listened to and acted upon.

The whole world now refers to the disaster as a tsunami.

The term comes from joining the Japanese for harbour (tsu) and wave (nami). It seems that it was coined by Japanese fisherman who, far out on the open sea, noticed little or nothing as a great wave passed below them with low amplitude. They would then return home to find their village devastated as the wave ramped up against the shore.

I hope that at some level (perhaps the collective unconscious, if there is such a thing) humanity now knows there is something deeply wrong in the way we're organising on the planet. Like Japanese fisherman out at sea we can feel a strange, perhaps unusual swell below us. The devastation to come is not yet visible. The December Tsunami merely a foretaste.

Sometimes we look at the big picture to try and experience the scale of what has happened (see, for example these extraordinary satelite images of Banda Aceh before and after the tsunami). The danger in standing back too far is that it starts to make events too impersonal. But looking at the big picture in another way can help us get a fix on the full extent and complexity of what is happening to our planet and the prospects for our inhabitation of it. This does not mean letting go of "the little stuff", on the contrary.

Huge and devestating as it was, the seaquake of 26 December 2004 makes little difference to the sum of human life on Earth. World population (following an S curve like any organism expanding to fill all available niches) is rocketing from around 6.2bn at present. Its most likely plateau will be somewhere in excess of 10 billion souls in the middle of this century.

Currently, every year 83 million more people smell the air on planet Earth than pass away. That’s an extra 227,400 humans every day. The lives lost in the tsunami were replaced with fresh babies in a few hours.

By contrast, many other species are on a real downer. Just 70 years after being discovered, humanity’s closest living relative – the Bonobo chimpanzee – is on the verge of extinction. More than 15,000 other species – including one in three amphibians, one in eight birds and a quarter of mammals – are talking to Mr Bones too.

In terms of big picture geological time, the tsunami was nothing special. Earthquakes of moment magnitude 9 or more, like the megathurst that caused it, take place somewhere on the planet every twenty years on average. They're indicative of a restless rocky crust, endlessly turning and reforming in its dreams. It is only 200 million years since all land was one gigantic continent. Imagine the explosions that broke it into today's continents and islands.

The single biggest explosion in recent geological history - an eruption about 71,000 years ago - occurred on Sumatra, 160km (100 miles) from the epicenter of the 26 December earthquake.

What's wrong with Western reactions to the tsuanami? Join refugee expert Graham Wood in the forums.

Nor are massive impacts on humanity anything new. About 1650BC the volcanic Greek island of Santorini erupted and sent a 100 to 150 metre (330 to 480 ft) tsunami onto the north coast of Crete, 70km (45 miles) away. It plunged Minoan civilization – the world of dancing over bulls – into a night from which it never really recovered. (Santorini is considered the likely source for the myth of Atlantis).

As recently as 13,000 years ago, according to some evidence, a one metre (3ft) high hominid died out on the island of Flores to the east of Java. Homo Floresiensis were small brained but highly specialised “early” humans who made sophisticated stone tools and cooked their prey over open fires. (They shared the planet with modern humans who had emerged elsewhere a few score thousand years previously, and outlived Neanderthals by some 10,000 years.) The cause of extinction was almost certainly a massive volcanic explosion.

In AD 1755 an earthquake destroyed 85% of the buildings in Lisbon, the capital of the world wide Portuguese Empire. Its famous palaces and libraries – great achievements of Western civilisation built on blood and suffering – were utterly destroyed. About 90,000 of the city’s 275,000 inhabitants were killed, together with about 10,000 across the Mediterranean in Morocco.

An explosion at Krakatoa in 1883 killed at least 36,000 people. And an earthquake in Tangshan, China in 1976 killed around 600,000.

Nor, again, is the scale of the death unmatched by other kinds of extreme events such as extreme weather. In 1970 a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal killed around 300,000 people in Bangladesh – more than twice as many as the number who died across the Indian Ocean in the recent tsunami (which hardly touched Bangladesh). In 1988 another cyclone killed around 140,000.

Not the last time

So it has happened before and it will happen again. This is not an argument for pessimism or fatalism – which I take to mean a cynical belief that nothing can be done and, at worst, that sending aid and making donations is pointless. It is stating a fact that we have to be prepared to learn to live with an indifferent, changing earth. We have to think ahead and respect its realities.

Holding onto this big thought, return to the trees.

You don’t have to have traveled far in South East Asia and the surrounding region to see coastlines like the ones affected by the tsunami. A few are all but untouched, like the primeval beaches of Komodo where, like a real life Jurassic Park, you may happen upon giant lizards tearing apart of carcas of a deer just as they did in the days of Homo Floresiensis and long before.

But in many places, the enormous pressure of human activity has uprooted virtually all the trees. Mangroves which act as a natural well absorbing the energy of sudden changes in water level, have been cleared away for housing, shrimp farms and other human uses.

I have, at some risk to life and limb, helped on experiments both near shore and far out in the ocean to see how to save and restore coral reefs, the first and best natural defense against a seaquake.

Andrew Browne made the point well in the Wall Street Journal on the last day of the year (subscription only). He reported that a ring of coral around the Surin Island chain off Thailand's west coast had proven a sturdy defence against the sea. “Only a handful of people on the islands are known to have perished -- most scrambled to safety as the first wave exploded against the coral”.

Browne writes that, tragically, coastal communities across much of Asia found themselves with no such shield against nature's fury. “The protective reefs, sand dunes and mangroves that look out toward the Indian Ocean in a broad arc from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh and Indonesia have been dynamited and bulldozed by a force as unstoppable as the tsunami itself - the force that drives some of the world's fastest-growing economies”.

Human development may be virtually unstoppable, but it may be shaped in less destructive ways that take more account of the nature of the world in which we find ourselves. We have to think about this precisely because tsunamis can’t be stopped and will come again. The coral scientist Tom Goreau, with whom I’ve worked on coral restoration in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the Indonesian archipelago, agrees with Browne’s report:

“I know the truth of this article first hand. In Sri Lanka almost all coral reefs that could have protected the coast were long ago smashed apart with crowbars and used to make quicklime. In Indonesia they were killed by fishermen's bombs and cyanide. In Seychelles and Maldives they died from global warming. And in India all of the above plus sewage and mud from erosion after deforestation”.

I saw Tom Goreau a couple of days later as he passed through London on the way to the UN Summit of Small Island States, taking place in Mauritius. He said:

“I expect a lot of grandstanding on offers from the US and Australia [at the UN Summit] to set up a tsunami warning system now that it is too late and to use this as a ploy to distract attention from serious action on global warming. We have always said that it was extreme events, superimposed on a slowly rising baseline, that would push things over the edge”.

It is the “slowly rising baseline” that we need to think about as the impact of the December tsunami receeds.

Humanity is now playing a role in one of the most powerful forces affecting life as a whole: climate change. It is no exaggeration to say there is plenty of scope for concern (some aspects are covered in this piece on openDemocracy).

Extremely rapid change - call it the Hollywood rate of climate change - has rightly been ridiculed (see here) . Nevertheless, observations in 2004 have shown, among other things, that world’s southern and northern ice sheets are disintegrating faster than anyone previously thought possible.

The immediate point is not to argue over how much is caused by human greed, but to realise that the “baseline” is changing and making existing settlements and societies more vulnerable.

Jared Diamond in his contribution to the turn of year big picture stuff argues that societies will condemn themselves, with a built-in blueprint for failure, if the elite insulates itself from the long-term consequences of its actions. In other words, effective feedback mechanisms are necessary as a first step towards ensuring that natural disasters do not turn into unmanagable humanitarian disasters.

In politics one idea for such a mechanism is democracy that works. The Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, who spent 18 years in jail for his views, put it simply to the supreme court that convicted him: “It is only through the people’s criticism and supervision that leaders will make fewer mistakes”.

Wei’s formulation is hard to better. But there's at least one problem. People must have access to accurate information, calmly presented, and have the opportunity to gain the capacity to form a reasoned judgement from it.

The shortfall in those qualities is pretty widespread, not least in the world's greatest power (though by no means only there). Mark Danner captures the gravity of the situation well in his assessment of how George W. Bush won the 2004 US presidential election:

“Many of the Bush supporters I spoke to were educated, well-informed people. They watched the news and took pleasure in debating politics. And yet they clung to views about important matters of fact that were demonstrably wrong”.

Danner is refering primarily to the "war on terror" and the situation in Iraq. But the syndrome applies more broadly, including in highly militarised views of climate change and responses to it (see The daze after tomorrow).

Down the tracks

Of the dozens of stories I happen to have read and heard about the tsunami, one of my favourites is about some elephants in Thailand. Sensitive to deep vibrations, they were aware of the wave before it arrived, lifted people with their trunks up onto their backs and then ran up the hills out of harm's way (see here).

Jared Diamond says he draws hope from the knowledge that humanity's biggest problems today are ones entirely of our own making. Somehow, I don’t find this an entirely optimistic thought. But perhaps we can make a start, with a little help from our elephant friends. Despite our great weight of numbers we can tread more gently, feel with more sensitivity, and remember.

openDemocracy will be featuring a debate on the politics of climate change in spring 2005. What do you think? Post your comments here.

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