Today's Reading

Natural disasters are spatially predictable—where they occur is not random. Floods happen near rivers, big earthquakes (generally) strike along big faults, volcanic eruptions take place at the site of existing volcanoes. But when they happen, especially compared to human timescales, is random. Scientists say an occurrence is "random about a rate." That means we know, in the very long term, how many of them take place. We know enough about a fault to know that earthquakes occur—have to occur—with a certain frequency. We can study a region's climate to the extent that its average rainfall becomes predictable. But whether this year brings floods or drought, whether the largest earthquake along the fault this year is a magnitude 4 or 8—that is purely random. And we humans don't like it. Random means every moment presents a risk, leaving us anxious.

Psychologists describe a "normalization bias," the human inability to see beyond ourselves, so that what we experience now or in our recent memory becomes our definition of what is possible. We think the common smaller events are all that we have to face, and that, because the biggest one isn't in anyone's memory, it isn't real. But in the earthquake that ruptures through the full length of a fault, the flood described as Noachian, the full eruption of a volcano, we see more than the common disaster. We face catastrophe.

In that catastrophe, we discover ourselves. Heroes are made. We laud the quick thinking, the unquenchable will to survive. We see extraordinary acts of courage committed by ordinary people, and we praise them for it. The firemen who run into a burning building when everyone else is running out hold a special place of honor in our society. Disaster movies always have as their hero the daring responder, from Charlton Heston in 1974's Earthquake, to Tommy Lee Jones in the 1997 film Volcano, to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in 2015's San Andreas. There is likewise a villain, in the public official who covers up the warning, or a selfish, scared victim who claims the last lifeboat for himself.

We show compassion for the victims, knowing that we could have been the one hit. Indeed, it is the randomness of the victimization that forms much of our emotional response, that encourages generous donations. For many people, helping the victims serves as a sort of unconscious good luck charm, warding off the same fate for themselves. We pray to God to protect us from the danger.

When the prayers fail and the catastrophe is upon us, we seem incapable of accepting that it is inexorably, infuriatingly random. We turn to blame. For most of human history, the great disasters have been seen as a sign of the gods' displeasure. From the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah to the devastating earthquake of 1755 in Lisbon, those who survived, those who witnessed, declared that the victims were being punished for their sins. It allowed us to pretend that we could protect ourselves by not making the same mistakes—that we had no reason to fear the bolt out of the blue.

Modern science may have changed many of our beliefs, but it hasn't swayed our subconscious impulses. When that great Southern California earthquake finally strikes, I know two things will happen. First, rumors will spread that the scientists know that another earthquake is coming, but that we aren't saying anything to avoid scaring the public. This is the all-too-human rejection of the random, an attempt to form patterns, to find reassurance. Second, there will be blame. Some will blame FEMA, accusing them of a poor response. Some will blame the government for allowing bad buildings to have been constructed (maybe even the same people who fought against mandatory improvements of those weak buildings). Some will blame scientists for not listening to that week's earthquake predictor. Some, in a pattern we have seen for centuries, will blame the sinners of the hedonistic La-La Land.

The last thing any of us will want to do is accept that, sometimes, shift just happens.

Most cities have the potential for a Big One in their future. Those harbors, fertile fields, and rivers that make everyday life viable are there because of natural processes that can produce disasters. And that Big One will be qualitatively different from the smaller-scale disasters in our recent past. It is a disaster when your house is destroyed. It becomes a catastrophe when not just your home but your neighbors' homes and so much of your community's infrastructure are destroyed that societal functioning itself collapses. We have choices to make, right now, that could make our cities much more likely to survive and recover from these great natural disasters when they strike. We can make informed choices only if we consider our potential future, and if we take a hard look at our knowable past. ...


This excerpt ends on page 12 of the hardcover edition.

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