Port Blair, Andaman Islands, shortly after the 2004 tsunami
I read Arthur Koestler’s book The Roots of Coincidence in the mid-1970s when I was studying in Delhi University. I don’t now recall the details of Koestler’s argument but I do remember the general drift of it – that apparently random events are sometimes ordered by hidden patterns of synchronicity – and I remember also that this idea made a huge impression on me.
I’ve been thinking about Koestler and coincidences a lot of late, largely because I have friends and family in some of the places that have been shaken by the recent spate of earthquakes. The latest of these quakes occurred on September 18: although centred in Sikkim it also shook Delhi, Dhaka and Patna and caused widespread panic in Kolkata.
News of the Sikkim quake reached me quite early in New York, because Achintyarup Ray, my Bengali translator, happens to work at the Times of India and is always ahead of the news (he also runs a very interesting blog). He was kind enough to alert me to the quake and I lost no time in calling my mother and sister in Kolkata. It turned out that they had barely noticed the tremors. Later I learnt that the quake had taken many lives and caused extensive damage in certain areas, especially Sikkim. But on Kolkata its effect was relatively minor.
Eleven days before that, on September 7, New Delhi had been shaken by another quake. That morning, even as I was sending off emails to my friends, I heard that there had also been a bomb blast in the city. The reverberations of the second event were more serious than those of the first. The earthquake registered 4.2 on the Richter scale and caused little damage.
A few weeks earlier New York had been preparing for a natural phenomenon of a different kind: Hurrican Irene. On the afternoon of August 23 I received an unexpected phone call from Mumbai: at the other end of the line was an old friend, Rahul Bose, the actor. We talked for a while, and then, hearing an odd sound, like that of a noisy truck, I looked up. I was facing a doorway and I saw that the doorposts were shaking. Holding the phone to my ear I ran outside, just in time to see an undulation passing down the length of the block.
Was it a coincidence that Rahul and I were, at that moment, speaking of something that was connected to another seismic event? We happened to be discussing Rahul’s philanthropic work in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands: he and I had traveled there together in 2004, immediately after the tsunami of December 26th (I wrote a series of articles which are available here). For Rahul that visit was the start of a deep and long-lasting involvement: his NGO has since sent some of the islands’ children to one of the best schools in India.
Rahul with tsunami victims, Andamans, 2004
During our brief stay in the Andamans Rahul and I had become accustomed to tremors and aftershocks: this was one of the reasons why I understood exactly what was happening that day, in Brooklyn. I said: ‘Rahul, sorry to interrupt – but the ground just shook. I think there was an earthquake here.’
Rahul had the television on, in his flat in Mumbai. Minutes later he said: ‘It’s on CNN – ‘earthquake hits New York’. The epicentre was somewhere in central Virginia.’
By yet another coincidence it happened that Debbie and Nayan were in central Virginia that day, visiting her family. I called them, in some alarm. To my surprise I had no difficulty getting through. Nayan was absorbed in a computer game: he was astonished to learn that he had just lived through a Richter 6.8 quake. Debbie had noticed something unusual but hadn’t paid much attention. The damage in any case was negligible. Later Debbie’s brother sent out an ironic email.
Virginia, New York, New Delhi, Kolkata: although they each have their faults, they are not akin to Sichuan or Chile or San Francisco in the sense of being closely associated with earthquakes. Is it merely a coincidence that places like these are suddenly being shaken by unaccustomed seismic activity? Or is this a seismic analogue of the ‘weirding’ associated with global warming (the effect that causes unlikely and unpredictable weather events)? Could it be, even, that global warming is causing a spike in the number of earthquakes? Has the melting of the polar ice-caps so altered the pressure on the earth’s crust as to bring about significant changes in seismic activity? Is a mega-quake in the offing in some completely unforeseen place? Is it becoming more and more likely that we will all – even those of us who had thought that we did not live in earthquake-prone areas – soon have to deal with seismic catastrophe?
I am sure many earth scientists around the world have arrived at conclusions about these matters. But I am sure also that they will not make their conclusions public – partly because it is now one of their functions to provide general reassurance to the world (more on this later); but also because the data they generate is so extensive and so complicated that it is unavoidably subject to varied interpretations. To issue pronouncements that might panic the public, on the basis of inconclusive evidence, would be irresponsible, at the very least.
This means that we lay people must use our common sense in examining such information as is publicly available. Here are some figures, published by the US Geological Survey on its (extremely interesting) website: in the ten years between 1990 and 1999, there were 196,782 earthquakes around the world (most of them very minor), which yields an average of 19,678 a year. In the ten years between 2001-2010, the figure is 271,479. The annual average is thus 7,470 higher than the previous figure, a steep increase by any count. The casualty rate is even more striking: in the ten years between 1990 and 1999, 114,646 people were killed in earthquakes; the figures for the decade of 2001-2010 is 790,913. The casualty rate of the last decade is thus about seven times higher than that of the decade before.
Certainly, in 2004, in the Andaman Islands, there were some who were convinced that the earth had become unusually restless of late. The islands sit on the same fault line where the slippage occurred on December 26 of that year. In the months leading up to it several people noticed unusual happenings: they spoke of fissures opening in the ground, of steam gushing from sink-holes, and so on. A few had paid attention and taken precautions. Needless to add, most people hadn’t: those who are awake to their surroundings are perhaps always few in number; the heedless and inattentive are always in the majority.
Now, in thinking of the quakes of the last few weeks, I find myself divided: in my head there is a voice that says these are random events; that the only connection between them is that I, as an individual, had friends and family in some of the affected areas and that this is entirely coincidental; that the earth’s crust is unimaginably vast and geological time is inconceivably slow; that there is no intrinsic connection between the recent quakes and they portend nothing. But there is another voice in my head and it says: Every fragment of the earth’s crust bears upon the others; every dislocation sets others in motion; there is nothing random or disconnected about phenomena like these; they are a warning of something much bigger to come.
Is it possible that these two voices come from two parts of myself, one of which is atavistic, superstitious and irrational, while the other is scientific, rational and modern? As a schoolboy I was taught that one of the great virtues of modern science is that it teaches people to lose their fear of Nature. This is largely true, I think. Everywhere in the pre-modern world, people regarded natural phenomena with awe and reverence, wonder and terror. Nature was regarded as unpredictable and inscrutable, vengeful as well as nurturing. The expectation of catastrophe was integral to this vision.
The great intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment changed this vision, perhaps irretrievably; Nature came to be seen as predictable, comprehensible and subject to laws. There was a boundless confidence that Nature could be tamed and made to serve human purposes. Catastrophe was marginal to this view.
These contrasting visions were not just speculative: they influenced society in many ways, and even determined where people lived, where they built their houses and so on. When I look at maps of the Indian Ocean region, I find it very striking that pre-colonial ports in Asia were rarely built to sit on the edge of the sea. Most of them were so located as to be protected from the open ocean by bays, estuaries or deltaic river systems – Cochin, Surat, Tamluk, Guangzhou and Malacca are all cases to point. It is as if the people who founded these cities had a clear understanding of the unpredictable furies of the ocean – tsunamis, storm surges and the like.
The Portuguese, being pre-Enlightenment colonizers, seem to have preserved some of this instinctive respect for the powers of the earth: they were generally quite circumspect in choosing locations for their ports (witness their earliest settlements in Goa, which were a fair distance upriver). It fell to a later generation of European colonizers to choose totally exposed locations for what are now some of India’s most important cities: Chennai and Mumbai, for instance (Rahul Srivastava, the brilliant urban theorist and co-founder of URBZ, often points out, in relation to Mumbai, that Salcette, the location chosen by the Portuguese, would have been a far better bet in the long run than the islands that form the core of today’s megalopolis).
The east coast of India has a long history of tsunamis dating back to the 1760s. This is only to be expected since the Bay of Bengal is seismically a very active region. The coast was hard hit by the tsunami of 2004 even though the epicentre of the quake that caused it lay quite far from the subcontinent, in the Sumatra Trench. The West Andaman fault runs much closer to the east coast: a major movement there could have a devastating impact, especially on cities that sit directly on the water.
Unlike the east coast, the west coast of India has never, in recorded history, been hit by a tsunami (although in 1883, after the eruption of Krakatau, the sea is said to have retreated by a mile or so around Bombay). But the west coast’s good fortune may be merely a function of the providential protraction of geological time – for the Arabian Sea is by no means seismically inactive. Earlier this very year a previously unknown fault system was discovered in the Owen fracture zone off the coast of Oman. The article that announced the discovery (which is available for free download here) concluded with this: ‘Our work sheds light on a previously unknown 800-km-long active fault system associated with giant landslides at the Arabia–India plate boundary. These results will motivate a reappraisal of the seismic and tsunami hazard assessment in the NWIndian Ocean.’
A tsunami emanating out of this zone would reach the west coast of India very quickly. What would its impact be on a completely exposed, low-lying megalopolis like Mumbai? The very thought is terrifying.
What made the founders of cities like Mumbai so unmindful of the possibilities of natural disaster? The fact that British and French had little direct experience of seismic upheaval may be a factor, but I think there was more to it than that. In the post-Enlightenment West people who thought about catastrophe were (and mostly still are) regarded as irrational and benighted: religious fanatics, millenarians, antideluvians etc. The men who built empires and founded cities were educated to think ‘rationally’ about nature, which meant that they saw it as orderly and predictable – not unlike the bourgeois societies of their imagining. [i] Their scientific thinking often reflected this: the great Victorian geologist, Charles Lyell, is a case to point – he and his followers made it their mission to dismantle ‘catastrophism’, substituting in its place a ‘uniformalist’ vision of geological processes as cumulative and gradual. Of quite another cast was the vision of Alfred Wegener: his theory of continental drift is a vision replete with titanic disruptions, continuous upheavals and and movements of sudden and unimaginable violence (can it be entirely a coincidence that Wegener formulated this theory around the time of the First World War?).
The gradual and the catastrophic are, of course, two aspects of the same reality: the movements of tectonic plates happens very slowly; the pressure builds over millions of years – but when that energy is finally released, the resulting event occurs in a manner that is, in the human experience of time, catastrophically sudden.
Most of us are perfectly well aware – as are politicians, city planners and institution-builders of all sorts – that we are fated to live with both these dimensions of geological time, the catastrophic and the gradual. But between the two there is a crucial difference: it is exceedingly difficult to incorporate the possibility of catastrophe into the rhythms of everyday life.
When I see a man at a street corner with a sign that says ‘Repent: Doom is Nigh’ my instinct is not to ask myself whether this might be true (and actually it is kind of true, at least in the sense that I, like most human beings, will probably have to deal with a natural catastrophe at some point in the future). But that is not what springs to my mind as I walk past the man with the sign: what I say to myself is ‘oh, just another nut.’
And what if I did dwell on his warning? What could I reasonably do about it? Close my bank account? Take out insurance? Buy a survival kit? Stock up on food? Build a shelter, modelled upon the nuclear shelters of the Cold War? That way madness – or at least eccentricity – lies. And besides, I know also that Nature works very, very slowly. A thousand years may pass before a disaster alights upon my little patch – or patches – of the Earth. What difference will it make to me?
It was perhaps for exactly these reasons that mid-19th century British civil servants in Calcutta – all sane, rational men – ignored the self-taught meteorologist, Henry Piddington, when he warned against the founding of the city of Canning, in the Sundarbans[ii]. Piddington was a visionary with a mission: he did everything in his power to alert the administration to the dangers of the location they had chosen; he wrote letters to the highest levels of government pointing out that the city was in an area that was often hit by cyclones (he actually invented the word); he warned that it was likely to be obliterated by a storm surge. But sane men don’t change course because of warnings issued by eccentric visionaries: the wheels of government ground on and the city was built – but only to be swept away soon afterwards, in precisely the manner predicted by Piddington.
In our dealings with natural disaster there are two kinds of heedlessness. One is the impatience and forgetfulness of individuals. This a product of the same sort of impulse that leads to driving without safety belts: it is what causes people to build houses in vulnerable areas, and to move back into locations that have a history of disasters. The recent Fukushima disaster offered a peculiarly affecting example of this. Along that stretch of coast there were ancient markers that warned future generations against building below a certain line (here is a video).
Over time the markers came to be covered by moss and weed and people began to rely so much on scientific warning systems that they became unmindful of the experiences of their ancestors. They began to build lower and lower on the slopes…
The second kind of heedlessness is institutional, and it is caused not so much by forgetfulness as by the fact that the calculus of catastrophe is difficult to integrate into the kinds of planning that is expected of institutions and governments (disaster management is, after all, of very recent vintage). This is the kind of heedlessness that leads to the founding of cities in unsuitable locations; to the placing of nuclear plants in vulnerable areas.
In the Andaman & Nicobar islands, in 2004, I came across a strange instance of this. The Indian Air Force had built a base on an exeptionally lovely little island, the kind of place that is described in brochures as a ‘tropical paradise’. The functional parts of the base – where the planes and machinery were kept – were located at a little distance from the water. The living areas, comprising of pretty little two-storey houses, were built much closer to the sea, facing a beautiful, palm-fringed beach. As always in military matters, the protocols of rank were strictly observed: the higher the rank of the officer, the closer his house was to the sea and the better the view that he and his family enjoyed. This part of the archipelago is not far from the tip of Sumatra; on the morning of Dec 26, 2004, the epicentre of the undersea quake was so close that when the tsunami struck, there was very little warning. Such was the design of the base that the likelihood of survival was small, and inasmuch as it existed at all, it was in inverse relation to rank.
At this moment in time we have certain expectations in relation to catastrophes and natural disasters. We expect governments to plan for them and we assume that ‘our leaders’ will act decisively to mitigate their effects. We expect, of ourselves, and of our governments, that everyone will act rationally and that our decisions will be based on the best available scientific evidence. In the absence of this we assume that there would be chaos, panic and greatly heightened risk.
But how well-founded are these assumptions? The people who placed the tsunami markers along the Japanese coast, like the people who made sure that pre-modern ports were built in sheltered locations, did so because they had a vivid sense of catastrophe – a thing that might, in modern terms, be regarded as ‘irrational’. On the other hand, when the location of that island Air Force base was picked out, when nuclear reactors were built in Fukushima, when the decision was made to build Canning, and when the foundations of Bombay, Madras and Hong Kong were laid, it was within the context of much the same sort of ‘rationality’ that we expect from governments (and from experts) today.
What does this mean for us as individuals, as we confront a future that may bring more environmental disasters and earthquakes? Is it possible that circumstances may arise when we would do better to rely on our instincts and common sense rather than on ‘authorities’, civic or scientific?
A case, currently under way in Italy, offers an insight into this. The case has pitted seven scientists against a group of citizens from l’Aquila, the Italian town that was struck by a devastating earthquake in 2009. For months before the quake, the city had been shaken by tremors; many residents took these to be a warning and slept in the open. On asking the authorities for advice they were given reassurances and decided to go back home.
‘In one now-infamous interview included in the prosecutors’ case,’ says a news report, ‘Bernardo De Bernardinis, then-vice chief of the technical department of Italy’s civil protection agency, responded to a question about whether residents should just sit back and relax with a glass of wine. ‘Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc,’ he responded, referring to a high-end red. “This seems important.”’
The report continues: ‘Some L’Aquila residents who lost loved-ones in the quake are now suing the scientists, saying a simple reminder of how to respond to a big earthquake could have saved lives. University of Naples geochemist Benedetto de Vivo agrees.
‘ “Italy has a long experience of people suffering from earthquakes,” De Vivo said. “The first thing they do is not sleep at home for a number of nights, but if an authority tells the people, don’t worry, stay calm, a lot of people will think it’s okay, should think they are correct.”’
In other words, here expert advice – or rather, people’s susceptibility to it – added to the damage and loss of life.
The case is being widely presented as an attack on science and scientists; some have even compared it to the trial of Galileo. Over five thousand scientists have signed a petition in support of their Italian colleagues; the Seismological Society of America has written to the President of Italy expressing concern about what it described as ‘an unprecedented legal attack on science’.
But not all scientists are in agreement on this matter. Another news report tells us: ‘John Mutter, a Columbia University professor of seismology, didn’t sign the petition in support of the Italians. He thinks the charges go too far, but he said the scientists should be held accountable through fines or public or professional censure.
“Even if we can’t predict and everyone knows we can’t, the way to think about it is if you can’t say when an earthquake is going to occur, we equally can’t say when one is not going to occur. And to suggest that somehow we know a major earthquake is not going to occur seems to me irresponsible,” Mutter said.’
For me, what makes this case so compelling is the peculiar predicament of the townspeople of l’Aquila: their instincts, collective memory, experience and knowledge of their own terrain told them that danger was in the offing. What was the process of thought that led them to privilege the views of experts over all of that? What does it say about the reverence for ‘expert advice’ that has been instilled into us? Is this not also a kind of ‘irrationality’? And is it fair to blame individual scientists for the blind trust that society reposes in their (necessarily fallible) work?
‘Who has turned us around like this?’ Rilke might have asked, and the question makes me wonder: Were there any in l’Aquila who did not listen to the experts; who chose instead to heed the warnings of their grandparents? What was their process of reasoning?
I think there are lessons here. The first is perhaps analogous to that which the locavore movement has been preaching in relation to food; even though it is a simple lesson, its meaning is not easy to absorb, especially for transients like myself. But this is I what I tell myself (knowing that I will probably not do much about it): ‘The first and most important line of defence against natural disaster is to know the place where you live – its quirks, its topography, urban or rural, its history, human and natural. It means talking to your neighbours, seeking out people who know the place well and being attentive to their accumulated experience.’
I also tell myself this: ‘Informed scientific advice is very important and you must be careful to pay close attention to it. But you must not, for that reason, discount your own common sense, your memories, your life experience and your instincts. You too are a part of the spectrum of life that surrounds you; and as with every other living creature your faculties of self-preservation are all predicated, ultimately, on being awake, to the world and to yourself.’
[i] There is a fascinating discussion of this in Sumathy Ramaswamy’s wonderful book, The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories, Univ of California, Berkeley Press, 2004, p. 11.
[ii] For more on this see the chapter entitled ‘A Post Office on Sunday’ in The Hungry Tide