The impact on the South Asian coastlines caused by the earthquake off Sumatra is a disaster of the first magnitude. Tens of thousands are dead, hundreds of thousands are injured, millions are homeless and the effects - medium and longer term - will harm tens of millions more. It is a bad blow for all humankind, but if we can take some important lessons from it perhaps something can be salvaged.
The first lesson is that the earth is a dynamic physical system. The earthquake was caused by the usual stresses related to plate tectonics, and reminds us that this earth that we think of as being so solid and stable is actually very plastic. Catastrophic earthquakes and volcanos must occur from time to time.
But as fluid as the earth’s crust is, the earth’s atmosphere is vastly more so. Periodically we suffer from upheavals generated by the normal climate systems, including cyclones, tornadoes and other types of violent storms.
And here of course is a vital lesson: we must acknowledge our own contribution to increasing the volatility of this planetary system. We already know that we are changing the basic climatic conditions, warming the atmosphere through propagation of so-called greenhouse gases and punching a hole in the ozone layer through use of chloroflurocarbons to mention but two.
The climate change models generally do not predict sudden rises in sea levels (although certain extreme scenarios relating to the rapid disintegration of the Antarctic ice sheet do), but they do predict gradual but definite rises. Some islands will entirely disappear under the waves, while others will become more vulnerable to bad weather.
And perhaps most significantly is the increase in bad weather predicted by current climate change models. In such cases, the scenes we have witnessed of destruction and death caused by flooding will inevitably be repeated.
The problem of course is that much of the world’s population lives on the coast, and anything that causes fluctuations in sea levels or rapid flooding will have a disproportionate impact. As well as the obvious effects on people and buildings, this will have a detrimental impact on fresh water supplies, which is emerging as one of the big environmental problems itself.
No matter what we do from here (and so far we have managed to do virtually nothing) we face much worse climate conditions in the twenty-first century. To act to minimise the causational factors, as well as to deal with the catastrophic results, requires that we rethink our basic ideas about how humanity lives on this planet.
The historian Benedict Anderson has famously described nation-states as ‘imagined communities’. That is, countries exist not because of some material reason, but because we agree that they do. For something so nebulous, the notion of ‘the country’ or ‘nation-state’ has enormous power over our lives. We call ourselves Australians, Americans, Chinese, French, Japanese, and so on. We pay taxes to and obey laws made by national governments, and when called upon, we fight and die for same. Nationality is the most important single way we identify ourselves.
But as the Sumatran earthquakes show, the natural world does not recognise these contrived entities. The surge of seawater across the Indian Ocean made no distinction between Indonesians, Sri Lankans, Indians or western tourists. Natural disasters are often limited to one country, such as the recent earthquakes in Iran and floods in China, but when the event is large enough, these national distinctions are blown away.
It was just luck that the Tsunamis did not impact on, say, the north-west coast of Australia, when the true horror would have hit home to Australians. As it is, the western media quickly concentrated on the story of the relatively few western victims over that of the multi-thousands of Asians affected. But the special treatment given to the western tourists - who even had their own hospitals to go to - should make us think. Such facilities should be available to all.
So the point is that not only must we start thinking beyond national identity, and our perceived national interests, if we are to deal with the causes of such future disasters, we must also do so to ameliorate the effects. Most essentially, injured and diseased Indonesians or Sri Lankans or Malays are first and foremost human beings suffering from problems that increasingly face the whole world.
Practically, we need to undertake much more research to find out how our major earth systems work. We need to build early warning networks, and we need to set up global emergency resources to respond to the disasters as quickly and comprehensively as possible. Then we need to support those affected to get back on their feet. As most of the money resides in the west, this is where the funds must come from. Such efforts should become an international priority - ultimately this is about global security, and demand the same levels of resources that once went into military needs.
What lessons, then, can we take from this awful event? One lesson must be that we have to rethink our ideas about the planet we live on, and what we are doing to it. Another is that we must rethink our ideas about the society we live in. Now, our ‘imagined community’ needs to encompass the whole world. Earth is a dynamic place, and it will regularly throw up dramatic changes that are disastrous for humans. Because we increasingly live in a global society linked by telecommunications and various social and economic relationships, any substantial disaster will now have global repercussions.
Due to our carelessness, we have created the conditions in which such environmental disasters are likely to occur much more often. The oceans and atmosphere make up an integrated global system, and we have been playing with it. In reality it is the rich west that has created most of the problems, but the impact will be global. We really need to face this difficult future together as members of one ‘imagined community’, humanity.