Japan earthquake: Many are the terrors of the earth, but they're not our fault
Why do we insist on blaming ourselves for natural disasters like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, asks Boris Johnson.
On Friday morning, a caller rang a London radio station to discuss the lessons of the Japanese earthquake, and said something both death-defyingly stupid and brilliantly illuminating. He knew why there had been a seismic event measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale, he said. It was because man was continually digging and drilling for oil, and our planet was angry at the intrusion. The Earth, in the view of this caller, was like some vast animal shrugging its pelt at an irritating flea-bite – and mankind was that irritating flea.
That analysis is of course stupid, because there is no evidence whatever of a connection between the colossal movements of the Pacific tectonic plates and our feeble scrapings and probings for oil or any other minerals.
The events of the past few days have certainly been appalling. I have never seen anything like that great black tide of sludge as it rolled with bobbing houses and boats over the fields of northern Japan. But then geology is a story of mind-boggling violence, and this earthquake is nothing compared to events in the fairly recent history of the planet. Why did India crash up into the rest of Asia to form the Himalayas? Why did Latin America split off from Africa and the rest of Gondwana? Was that because there was some prehistoric human being tempting destruction by fossicking around for oil? Of course not. The man was talking tripe, and yet he was being deeply revealing about the psychology of the human race.
Whatever happens in the world, whatever the catastrophe, we approach it like some vast BBC reporter with an addiction to the first person singular. We just have to put ourselves at the centre of the story. Back in the second millennium BC, there was a huge earthquake and tsunami in the Mediterranean, an event which has been associated with the destruction of Santorini. It was obvious to the ancients that this must have been to do with mankind – and specifically the misbehaviour of the people of Atlantis, who got uppity and dissed Poseidon. So Poseidon struck back. Of course he did.
In about 760 BC, there was an earthquake that shook Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Israel. Why? How could you even ask? It was because King Uzziah of Judah had started to behave unorthodoxly, and was going into the temple to burn incense when everyone knew that this practice was reserved for the priests and the sons of Aaron. So Yahweh sent an earthquake (and leprosy for foolish Uzziah), didn't he? Stands to reason.
I am afraid to say that our manic post hoc ergo propter hoc-ery survives to this day. When Phuket in Thailand was hit by the 2004 tsunami, there really were a large number of religious nut-jobs – and not only in America – who were convinced that this was some kind of divine vengeance on that town for the alleged immorality of its residents and its reputation for sex tourism. It is always us, us, us. Many are the terrors of the earth, says the chorus in Sophocles, and nothing is more terrible than mankind.
Well, the only good thing about an earthquake and tsunami on this scale is that they remind us that even Sophocles was capable of talking bilge. There are plenty of things more terrifying than man, and they include asteroids, earthquakes, tsunamis and anything else that reminds us that we are tiny blobs of flesh and blood crawling on the thin integument of a sphere of boiling rock and metal, and that there are events in the life of that planet that are simply nothing to do with human action.
The Japan earthquake wasn't caused by our lust for oil, or the Western banking system, or failure to invest in early warning systems. It wasn't caused by our slowness to meet the Kyoto CO2 targets or poor old Prince Andrew's negotiations with Middle Eastern despots (all of which, by the way, were done entirely at the behest of the blooming Foreign Office), or by any other aspect of human immorality.
The most important lesson from the Japan earthquake is that there are no lessons for human behaviour; and over the next few days it is vital that we watch out for the preachers and the moralisers who will try to use it to further their campaigns. First off the blocks, I see, is the anti-nuke lobby. These are the atomkraft-nein-danke brigade, who have always believed that any kind of nuclear fission – tampering with the building blocks of the universe - was an invitation to cosmic retribution. They will now do everything they can to exploit the Fukushima explosion and the difficulties being experienced in bringing a couple of plants under control. I don't want in any way to minimise these problems, and we must hope they are sorted out as soon as possible with the barest leaks of radiation. I just doubt that there is any real read-across between the difficulties of nuclear reactors in a well-known earthquake zone, and the proposed nuclear programme in this country, which is becoming more essential with every day that passes.
Whatever happens in Libya, whether we intervene or not (and I wouldn't hold your breath), it is clear that instability will continue for a while yet in the Middle East. It would be madness, in the current crisis, with oil capable of climbing anywhere up to $200 a barrel – with catastrophic consequences for the world economy – for us to announce that we are abandoning one of the few available long-term alternatives to fossil fuels. What would the oil price do then?
The response to the Japan earthquake is to send all the aid and the logistic support that we can. But we don't have to treat this as any kind of verdict on mankind's activities. We don't have to make amends by sacrificing a hecatomb to Poseidon. We don't have to lead 100 garlanded men and maidens to the top of the pyramid and then cut out their beating hearts. We don't have to stop drilling for oil, and we don't have to sacrifice our efforts to provide safe, clean and green nuclear power.
There is no rhyme or reason to an earthquake, and we should for once abandon our infantile delusion that we are the cause and maker of everything.