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There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster

March 13th, 2011 No comments

That’s not completely true, of course, and in the aftermath of the triple-barreled horrors in Japan — earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown — it might even seem callous to suggest otherwise, as the title of this post does. Surely the first two of these are natural disasters in the purest sense.

But calling something a “natural disaster,” while a humbling reminder of the fact that, as one seismologist said, “nature always bats last,” sometimes gets in the way of looking into the deep questions that make such disasters more or less catastrophic. Indeed, Andrew Sullivan wrote:

Readers have asked why we haven’t covered this event exhaustively. My answer is that this is a natural disaster, unlike, say, a revolution or a war, which requires little added comment.

I couldn’t disagree more. Consider:

Hurricane Katrina was barely one when it reached New Orleans — the big story there was the ineptitude of the Army Corps of Engineers, local, state, and federal politicians and bureaucrats, and the ham-handed efforts by the Department of Homeland Security (forced into a public health role for which it had little appetite and less competence, as dramatized so chillingly in Zeitoun).

The earthquake that decimated Haiti was, in its effect, far worse than the one that hit Japan, even though the magnitude of the first — 7.0 — was far less than the 8.9 (or is it 9.0?) of the more recent one.What’s the difference between 7.0 and 9.0? Here’s a quick Richter scale refresher:

[E]ach step on the Richter scale is 10 times greater than the one before it. An earthquake that measures 8.0 is ten times stronger than one that measures 7.0, and an earthquake that measures 9.0 is one hundred times stronger than one that measures 7.0. So Friday’s earthquake in Japan was almost 100 times stronger than the one in Haiti in 2010.

So why was the less powerful natural disaster more consequential than the much stronger one? Largely because of the vast differences in infrastructure and public health preparedness between the two island nations. It’s by now a commonplace of public health doctrine that any naturally occurring, negative incident — say, infectious disease or (let’s use the term here) natural disaster — will have far worse consequences for the poor than for the rich. And while Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Japan remains one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. So the Haitian government estimated 230,000 dead (others guessed fewer, but all agree that the number exceeded 100,000), while the Japanese devastation, though too early to quantify yet, will almost surely be much lower. (As I write this, 20,000 is the new “best guess.”) So the earthquake about 100 times stronger (in Japan) will likely end up causing the deaths of about one-tenth as many people as the weaker one (in Haiti). Please don’t think I mean to minimize any of this. I’m trying to make a point, and I can barely stand to watch these images.

There’s plenty more to do, and to say, than to simply gawk at the horror and tally the dead. There are questions of constructing buildings to withstand earthquakes (and boy, did Japan do a good job there — not even one of the strongest quakes in recorded history caused a single skyscraper to topple; again, compare Haiti), personal preparedness for disaster (and the interesting psychological questions relating to why we don’t prepare for low-frequency, but high-impact events), and, inevitably, the safety of the nuclear power industry.

In its way, a natural disaster causes us to think about, report on, and try to fix just as many things as does a revolution; just in a different way. And it’s a mistake to think that one raises more complex questions that the other.  There are simply two very different kinds of entropy to be dealt with.

Interpretations of Disaster

October 28th, 2010 3 comments

I awoke this morning to find a Facebook posting by my friend Charley Sullivan that is surely one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. Without further introduction, I’ll let this piece speak for itself, in its entirety.

As I woke up yesterday morning, I heard the words “volcano” and “Indonesia” come across NPR.  I was instantly awake.  I am an historian of Indonesia, and in particular of Central Java, and I immediately needed to know more.  It turned out it wasn’t just a volcano that had erupted, it was THE volcano: Gunung Merapi, whose name means Mountain of Fire. It stands at the cosmological center of the Javanese universe, on the north end of a meridian that runs south from the mountain through the royal city of Yogyakarta to the beach at Parangtritis, the home of Kyai Loro Ratu Kidul, the queen of the South Seas. On the rare clear day Merapi dominates Yogyakarta and the pre-Islamic temples of Borobudur and Pramabanan, sometimes smoking gently next to its twin, Gunung Merbabu. This is an ancient and spiritually very potent place, a site of pilgrimages, where sultans and presidents have come to meditate in secret grottos in search of wahyu, the light that is the ultimate source of Javanese spiritual power. According to Javanese legend, it is the place where both Java and the whole world are nailed to the ground, keeping all things in place and in order.

But as I listened to the news, I heard no sense of the specialness of that space.  The mountain, we were told, was 400 miles southeast of Jakarta, the explosion had been caused by an earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale, and although there was also a tsunami triggered by another earthquake in Riau, all part of the same “Ring of Fire” we know from middle school, the two events were unrelated seismologically, so said the scientific experts. We were told that the area is covered in ash, that some people have died while many more are injured, mostly to burns and inhalation injuries, and still more have been evacuated. The emergency response teams from the Indonesian government, well practiced in volcano eruptions and tsuanmis, are efficiently on hand. President Yudhoyono has delayed his overseas mission to Vietnam to check in on the natural disaster, or at least the one in Riau.

This is all accurate, but stunningly incomplete.  The American media have given us the story we expect to hear – distance from Jakarta, Richter scale, Ring of Fire, ash, evacuations, death, emergency response – that is identical to other (particularly post-Aceh-tsunami) “Indonesia as site of frequent natural disaster” stories. We are missing a much more complex and interesting story.

The distance from Jakarta as the crow flies, unless you’re rich and on an airplane, means little to most Indonesians, though the distance by train or by bus, measured in hours rather than kilometers, would. I study Indonesia, and I still don’t know the difference between 6.2 and 6.4 on the Richter scale, though I know anything in the 7’s would be like Godzilla pounding his foot through your house, and something in the 5’s would barely set the ice cubes in your gin and tonic shivering. The ring of fire covers a third of the earth, but how a tsunami in Kyushu, or even one in Riau, relates to the explosion of Merapi, no-one really knows. There are two things we’ve known about this part of the world since 6th grade: that these are the Spice Islands, and that the whole ring of fire, including Los Angeles, is all going to slide into the sea one day. The place is inherently dangerous and to be feared, and the western news reaffirms what we expect to see and hear in such a situation.

To find out what is really going on in Java then, I turn on my MacBook and open up Facebook, always one of my best and fastest sources for news from Indonesia.  And there it is, an Instant Message from Mas Bambang Irawan, teacher of development economics at Universitas Sebelas Maret in Solo, (another royal city under the shadow of Merapi,) a partner and local organizer of the undergraduate summer seminars I have arranged and led to Central Java and Bali for undergraduates from the University of Michigan, a superbly trained classical Javanese dancer, an important member of one of Solo’s two royal houses, and, with his wife Lina, a good and close personal friend.

The Instant Message is all about the eruption, but there are no Richter scales, or ash clouds, or even government efficiency.  Instead, it runs this way, in a mixture of Indonesian and English:

Bambang: Hello.  I have to tell you that Mbah Maridjan left the world today. We met him two years ago, do you remember? His home is now beneath the ground.

Me:  Aduh!!!!  Yes I remember him, of course I remember him.

Bambang:  It turns out our interview with him was the last he ever gave to foreign researchers.

Me:  Were we that bad??

Bambang:  No, not at all.  We are lucky to have met such a rare and precious person.

Me:  Indeed.  I hope his soul rests.

Bambang:  Amiin.

Mbah Maridjan was the court (kraton) servant in charge of Mount Merapi. His job, inherited from his father, was, officially at least, to build a pathway to Kendah, an important site on the mountain, when the kraton sends offerings to the mountain.  But he was both more simple than that, and much more important and his position was eminently more complex. “I don’t have even an elementary school education,” he told my students in the interview in late June 2008, “so I was just a janitor around here, cleaning up after people’s junk, and cleaning up the environment on the mountain.”

But for being “just a janitor,” he had already become a celebrity before the earthquakes in Central Java in 2006, in which Merapi had also belched.  He was called, by both the international and Indonesian press, such things as “The Keeper of the Mountain,” “The Volcano Whisperer,” or, in a more nationalist Indonesian bent “The respected President of Merapi.” When word got out that he had “predicted” or “known about” the eruptions of the mountain in 2006 before they occurred, which had been largely missed by the electronic sensors placed all over the mountain and manned by international teams of scientists, his fame shot through the roof, and he became a media sensation. His small mountain top courtyard was suddenly full of television cameras from around the world, and pilgrims from around Indonesia. An interview with Mbah Maridjan became a prized commodity, and I’m sure that the people invading his small village (really just a few houses and a mosque) were considered quite a nuisance.

Nonetheless, when my students and I came to Yogyakarta in 2008, looking at the aftermath of the 2006 earthquakes and at the political and mystical geography of the whole region, Mas Bambang had used his court connections to get us an interview with Mbah Maridjan. As I found out yesterday morning, it was the last one he gave to foreigners.

It was a fascinating interview; not for what we learned, but for how my students experienced it.  This interview came towards the end of our time in Indonesia.  We had spent almost three weeks by then interviewing all sorts of people in Bali and in Central Java – artists, community activists, royal, religious and community leaders, fishermen, rice farmers, market vendors, hotel managers and medical personnel.  In all cases, we had been welcomed warmly and our interviewees had been patient through the back and forth of questions, translations, answers, translations, misunderstandings, questions for clarification, and more translations. This all happened with photography, sound recording and note taking alongside the actual interview, and with me sitting behind my students helping them to understand the implications of certain answers, or to guide their next train of thought. By the time we got to meet Mbah Maridjan, my students were very used to getting answers they understood, and their interview skills had become practiced, both in the technical sense, and in terms of approaching the interview in an Indonesian way, which is to say politely, quietly and somewhat obliquely at times.  We had gotten many compliments on how “sopan” or appropriate and respectful they were.

The interview with Mbah Maridjan didn’t go that way.  He was, of course, completely polite and welcoming, even putting on hold a meeting with some young imams to talk with us. It was also the day of his nephew’s wedding at the small mosque just up the hill, where Mbah Maridjan spent much of his time.  In fact, we had needed to wait about an hour beyond our appointed time (not an uncommon occurrence in Java at all, where there is sometimes a very different sense of time,) so he could lead the Asr prayers in mid afternoon.

But my students’ questions, and Mbah Mardjian’s answers, even though very ably translated, just weren’t matching up. They expected his answers to be “spiritual,” and perhaps even a bit odd, but they didn’t realize that they were asking questions in one realm: a very technical, scientific world, (even if tinged with a clear love for the mystical side of Java), and his answers were coming from a very different realm, one steeped in a world both Islamic and full of spirits, which, to Mbah Mardjian’s way of thinking, were one and the same.

My students asked what his job was, and he said he was a simple servant of the kraton, a janitor, who prepared a path for offerings to the mountain once a year or so.  They asked then why the international press had called him the President of Merapi, and he answered that the kraton tells him that he is a simple and lowly servant, so how could he possibly be a President.  When asked whether he could “talk to the mountain,” he said, “of course not, the mountain is spirits, and I am just a man,” and when asked about where the spirits were from, he said they were from the South Seas, guardians of Loro Ratu Kidul, (something I’m sure none of my students actually believed, or even believed that Mbah Maridjan believed).  They were simply not asking questions he could answer with his view of the world, and he was not giving answers that they could make sense of with theirs.

But he did have an interesting take on Merapi itself that they liked. When asked about how he knew the eruptions would happen, he said “an eruption is like the cough of the volcano. There have been large coughs, but there have been many more small ones that no one has recorded. When the volcano is sick to its stomach, the cough forms, and sometimes erupts. I just know when that will be the case because I’ve watched the mountain all my life, following my father around. The mountain changes a lot. The lava used to flow to the southwest, but not it flows straight south towards Yogya.”  He also said that he hoped Yogyakarta would remain safe, and that it was his job to help that happen.

After about 45 minutes of our questions, Mbah Maridjan’s wife, perhaps worried about the wedding arrangements for her nephew, came in and berated him for wasting time with “bulés,” a less than affectionate term for Westerners.  “They don’t understand what you’re saying,” she scolded him, “don’t waste your time.” Even when told of our gift of dried Michigan cherries, unfailingly received with appreciation and interest by other people we interviewed, she said loudly that she didn’t want any “bulé food.” Not receiving a gift with grace and thanks is “kasar,” or unrefined, and “kurang ajar,” or uncouth, both significant breaches of Javanese etiquette.

As we made our way back down the mountain, Mas Bambang and I were ecstatic; the interview had been a gem we thought, and the students must have appreciated the specialness of the occasion and the chance to talk with such a “rare” human being, one who saw the world around him in almost completely different terms. But our students, and one named Dave in particular, were angry. The felt that they had been poorly received, and that Mbah Mardjian had not answered their questions. On a trip where we had stressed being unfailingly polite and respectful (which my students were, without exception,) they actually felt offended, and in Javanese terms, by the way Mbah Mardjian’s wife had treated them.

What had misfired in that interview was based in the mutual misunderstanding of two very different ways of seeing the world, one based largely in things “modern” and “technical,” and the other in an older and increasingly rare understanding of things that is based deeply in local culture and knowledge that acknowledges the presence not just of spirits, but of spirits with names and histories and well-known personalities, and of mountains that can cough. This is not a new miscommunication; it is simply one in which one side of that conversation is harder to hear now, as our world is full the modern technologies of Facebook and television news beaming across the globe instantly.

Last week, the University of Michigan’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies marked its 50th anniversary, occurring this year, with a panel of our founding and early faculty. They were all asked what, in an era of rapid change both in the world and in the academy, was essential to retain. Judith Becker, one of the world’s leading scholars and teachers of Javanese gamelan music, noted that there was just so much to be gained from the in depth study of a language and a culture, particularly its music and arts. “This gives you another way of seeing,” she said, and is the fundamental point of a global education.

And yet many of us lack the ability to see the world in multiple ways. Our technological approach is hardwired, even as we use it to express ideas of mystical transformation in Sunday morning religious television shows. Furthermore, we feel angry when we don’t understand other cultures, when they don’t deal with us on our terms, or when they don’t answer our questions in ways we can understand.  And we Americans are very good at seeing what we believe to be the case, often dismissing the things we simply don’t comprehend.

During the last presidential campaign, Barack Obama was asked once about what he had learned growing up in Indonesia. His answer was not technical – there were no distances from this or Richter scale that – it was about the beauty of the call-to-prayer echoing across the early morning Jakarta soundscape. Having grown up in Jakarta for the same for years as President Obama, and loving that very same sound, I knew instantly what he meant.  But I fear that for many people listening, he had given a Mbah Maridjan answer, one that they could understand the words and concept of, but whose significance was completely lost on them.  The take-away for some of them? Obama must be a Muslim, which is, of course, a condemnation in their eyes.  And our misunderstandings of Islam continue apace, whether in the form of protests against a mosque in Manhattan or our unease at the sight of a “Muslim dressed” family getting on an airplane. All, I believe, to our detriment.

Mbah Maridjan baru meninggal dunia.  Mbah Maridjan has left this earth. He was among those killed in the explosion of Gunung Merapi, as were 13 others who were up on the mountain trying to convince him to come down. They found Maridjan’s body in the little mosque up the hill from his house, the highest mosque on the mountain, facing Mecca, his body prostrated in sujud, the deepest and most intimate part of the Muslim prayer sequence, where one’s sole purpose is to praise and glorify Allah.

This is all over the Indonesian press; it is something both significant and instantly understood.  Three photographs of his corpse, still recognizably in sujud have splashed across the internet, and old form of communication spread quickly by the most modern of technologies. Even if Indonesians don’t know exactly what led Mbah Maridjan to pray rather than flea, they recognize an echo of an important way of seeing the world.

Perhaps he was simply turning to God in a difficult time, but my instinct is that Mbah Maridjan was in deep mediation between the temporal and spiritual worlds, doing his best to hold back the explosive power of the mountain he knew better than anyone in the world. He was trying to keep Yogyakarta and the kraton safe, and to keep the nail holding us all in place pinned to the soil. If that is the case, he was doing so in ways we have increasingly forgotten about and dismissed, but in terms we should work desperately to understand and appreciate.

Please share this wonderful story around.