Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Actually that wasn't the title I originally intended for this post, but it so happens I was going to talk about a general issue and along came the earthquake in Haiti to serve as a very tragic particular example. So let me begin with the post I had in mind.

For reasons not entirely clear even to me, I have long been fascinated by the so-called Tunguska event. As most readers probably know, at least in general terms, a little more than 100 years ago, on June 30, 1908, an object exploded about 5 miles above a remote location in Siberia. The force of the explosion has been estimated to be equivalent to 185 Hiroshima bombs. Most scientists believe the object was an asteroid, estimated to weigh 220 million pounds, heated to more than 44,000 degrees Fahrenheit by friction with the atmosphere. However, as the object was destroyed in the explosion and no fragment of it has been found, there are those who hold to the theory that it was a comet.

NASA estimates that comparable events happen on average about once every 300 years. So while nothing like it will probably happen in my lifetime, you never know. If it does, most likely the impact will be above the ocean, or another sparsely populated location -- the boreal forest again, the tundra, polar region, or desert. However, if it did occur over a populous region, the catastrophe would be unimaginable. The Tunguska explosion completely stripped trees of their branches and bark at ground zero, and knocked every tree to the ground farther away for a distance of 70 kilometers. (The blast was directed straight down at ground zero and horizontally further away.)

The philosophical importance of this is simply that there are disasters that we cannot prepare for, cannot plan for, cannot ameliorate, and which strike without any pattern or predictability. For all the effort we might put into health promotion and disease prevention, sometimes stuff just happens. Of course there are shades and borderline areas. San Francisco is prepared for earthquakes with strict building codes and emergency services at the ready, but Haiti is far too impoverished to prepare meaningfully, especially since a strong earthquake in that location was not expected. As you know, I thought the H1N1 influenza thing has been greatly overhyped and over discussed -- and that is something for which preparation and amelioration were possible, obviously -- but for all the nattering about preparedness, a globally catastrophic outbreak of a novel infectious disease, which we can do little or nothing about, is indeed possible.

At this point, anthropogenic global warming cannot be stopped, although it can be slowed down. But even though the warming itself is preventable in principle, climate is not yet fully predictable -- much less the weather -- and we cannot anticipate all of the consequences that may occur. Some people, I think, exaggerate the appropriate level of alarm. It will not destroy civilization or exterminate humanity. However, it may well mean there cannot be nearly as many of us as there are now, and that we'll have to get there the hard way.

None of this is pleasant to contemplate, I know, but it's reality. Whether humanity will ever fully master the threats posed by our indifferent universe is questionable. But we should live our lives with consciousness of the privilege they represent.

Update: It turns out the possibility of a major earthquake near Port au Prince was known, but essentially, there was nothing Haiti could do about it. I have known quite a few Haitians professionally in my career, and I have learned a lot about the country. As the story develops, this appears to be a catastrophe rivaling the Asian Tsunami. This Kos diarists tells you how you can help.

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