Tsunami and other natural disasters have lessons to teach

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The Tsunami that struck Dec. 26, 2004 was one of those events that mark an
era. Among indigenous peoples prior to colonization, such an event might be
remembered for generations, even centuries, in stories passed down. Such
stories recounted the awesome powers of nature in ways that should not be
forgotten. A major difference about such catastrophes today is that in the
past it might take weeks or even months for the news to find its way to
more distant peoples and the full impact and details could only be
imagined. This event was seen almost immediately on televisions around the
world and a week later witnesses, many from northern Europe and the U.S.,
were still telling their stories. The details were astonishing, and the
stories were carried in newspapers day after day. It became a world event
that sparked empathy among strangers far away.

In times of natural disasters, when great numbers of people are killed and
injured through no fault of their own, people often show encouraging
impulses of generosity and genuine empathy. People reflected on how fragile
human beings are in the face of the furies of nature, and for a moment,
there were scattered reflections of humility, even among groups to whom
such humility is rare.

In the West there has been a tendency to assume or assert that such
disasters have a supernatural component. People asked what they have done
to incur the wrath of God or other supernatural beings. Contemporary people
want to know who is to blame. They have always asked this question, but
different cultures at different times have found differing answers.

Natural disasters pose the greatest threat to civilization. The Old Kingdom
in Egypt, for example, suffered such severe drought at the beginning of the
second millennium that there is evidence of cannibalism. The drought was so
severe the Nile failed to provide water for crops, lakes dried up, and
there were no alternative food sources. Scientists have found proof of
climate changes during those years as far away as Iceland and perhaps even
Indonesia, proof that the drought in Egypt was not local but global. But
the greatest suffering probably came to Egypt where people were almost
entirely dependent on human inventions for their survival.

There were earthquakes and a volcanic eruption on the island of Thera -
which set into motion not only a tsunami but also climate changes which
impacted the Aegean - had a devastating impact on the Minoan civilization
on the island of Crete. Evidence emerges here of cannibalism, highly
unusual in such a developed and sophisticated culture. The tsunami and
climate did not destroy Minoan civilization, but it weakened it enough that
later Greek invaders were able to conquer the Minoans and build upon that
civilization's ruins. Western civilization may have taken a different turn
had it not been for that tsunami.

The Roman civilization suffered several notable disasters, but the most
impressive is not commonly discussed. Evidence supports a theory that
climate change brought cooler, drier conditions to central Asia in the 5th
century, creating conditions that pushed the tribes of mounted archers
westward in the direction of the Empire where they encountered Germanic
tribes on Rome's borders. The Germanic tribes, in their attempt to escape
the nomads, pushed into Roman territory and eventually sacked Rome itself.
The fatal blow to Rome, however, came in the 6th century in the form of one
of the worst plagues in history. It is said that at one point, 10,000
people a day died in Constantinople. Whole areas of Italy were depopulated.
Although the eastern Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire survived, the
western part of the Empire did not.

The responses to these disasters live with us to this day. At first, people
tended to blame the Roman Catholic Church for what happened. Roman culture,
they said, had been declining since Rome adopted Christianity. They pointed
to the decline in engineering and the abandonment of classical knowledge
under the Christian regime as evidence of decline. It is true that during
these centuries, hygiene in Rome had declined because the early Christians
considered bathing too hedonistic, and learning had declined because early
Christians discouraged any reading materials which not related to the
salvation of the soul, but the Church's best propagandists urged that the
calamities were the result of people ignoring the Church's teachings and
their argument prevailed. If there is a disaster and it can be translated
into God's wrath, the Church will flourish.

There were other disasters but the great plague of the 14th century was a
pivotal moment. The plague killed one-third of the population of Western
Europe. Bodies collected so rapidly there was no time, and no people, to
bury them. People piled the bodies outside the city walls. Wolves came to
feed on the bodies, which is the origin of all those werewolf stories in
Western culture and explains why the wolf, who is generally thought of in
many cultures as a noble creature, even a role model, is feared in the
West's imagination. In their minds, nature had failed mankind and was an
enemy to be feared. The alienation was irrational, but complete.

Some North American cultures tried to balance the role of nature as
nurturer and its history as occasional destroyer. The Haida of Haida Gwaii
(I can't bring myself to call the place the Queen Charlotte Islands) told
of Raven and the modern rendition of "Raven Steals the Light" is considered
world literature. Raven, a trickster spirit of creation, is unpredictable,
occasionally humorous and supportive, but mostly detached from the destiny
of humankind. Whimsical and sometimes careless, he represents how we
experience nature.

If we lived in a rational and sane world, human cultures would be
organizing to meet the next unseen and mostly unpredictable threat to human
life through cooperation and careful planning. Natural disasters are simply
a part of life and will always happen. Human societies can prepare for such
disasters or, by ignoring them or pretending the dangers are not real, they
can make the impact more severe. Of course, we don't live in a rational or
sane world. Once in a while, when a natural disaster reminds us,. we are
called upon to think about that.

John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and
professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New
York at Buffalo.