Science and Spirit: Dangerous Planet

Sermon: Dangerous Planet

There’s a daily natural disaster list on the world wide web that keeps a record of all felt earthquakes, active volcanoes, flash floods, active cyclones, tornadoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, mud flows, and solar flashes, along with major storms.

On Dec. 21, 2012, the list reported 17 erupting volcanoes, snowstorms that cancelled 600 flights, blizzard warnings in the Midwest, avalanche warnings on Mt. Shasta in California, a moderate earthquake in Japan, a light one offshore in Guatemala, a shallow one in Nevada, and a tornado that touched down in Mobile Alabama, destroying 10 homes.

Dec. 21, 2012, the day that the 5,125 year long Mayan Calendar  was to end, and  with it the world as we know it.

The run-up to this day, which turned out to be all in all a pretty ordinary day, disaster-wise, on this planet, made this an out of the ordinary holiday season. As columnist Gail Collins wrote, people do seem to love a good apocalypse. So in addition to the usual television fare of endless showings of “Home Alone One” with its hapless water bandits being brutally outwitted by an eight year old boy; and “Christmas Story”, where another kid gets his tongue frozen stuck on a metal playground pole, and then newer additions like a reality show “Holiday ER”, chronicling Christmas Eve  emergencies recreated with “full medical accuracy”,  we got gift-wrapped  ultimate disaster shows.As far as the National Geographic  channel was concerned, as one TV critic put it, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa were for sissies.

So in addition to its regularly scheduled so-called duck and cover show “Doomsday Preppers,” National Geographic added  several  special new programs to its  December line-up, including ‘Evacuate Earth” and “Maya Underworld: The Real Doomsday .

All of these shows, TVwriter Mike Hale observed, played a double game pointing out  either the absurdity or the sheer speculatativeness of their subject matter, while merrily fearmongering. Shaking their finger(s) at all the attention being given these specious predictions based on thousand year old stone carvings, while devoting huge chunks of airtime to them.

And in a new twist on doomsday prediction, instead of relying on biblical scripture—God’s Weather Control– to buttress their argument, these shows pointed to science( or at least pseudo science) a collapsed star due to pass through our solar system tearing apart our planet, a perturbed Earth Atmosphere, and then over on the History channel  a talking head spokesperson for some Apocalypse  Institute  droning on about a Galactic Super Wave theoryfeaturing a black hole that was due to cause solar storms on our sun, setting off massive earthquakes and  roaring volcanoes and the destruction of our entire electric grid. No cell phones, no lights, a permanently darkened ,wild continent.

When we weren’t being enticed to stay glued to the most current Doomsday run-up specials, people around the world were responding with end of the world  parties, including one here in Atlanta held by radio station Q100, and another ironically violent house party in San Bernadino California that led to a gun fight leaving a 20 year old man dead.

In Russia, there were reports of unusual behavior , with inmates in a women’s prison near the Chinese border  said to have experienced a collective mass psychosis so intense that the wardens had to call in a priest to calm them down and in a factory town east of Moscow, panicked residents stripped the shelves of matches and kerosene, sugar and candles.

Russian officials decided to put an end to this doomsday talk and behavior. The minister of emergency situations announced he had access to methods of monitoring what is occurring on planet earth,  assuring his people that that world was not going to end in December. He acknowledged that Russians would still be vulnerable to the usual set of calamities: blizzards, ice storms, tornadoes, floods, trouble with transportation and food supply, breakdowns in heat, electricity and water supply.

Lawmakers in Moscow wrote a letter to Russia’s three main television stations asking them to stop airing material about prophecy. One official proposed prosecuting people who spread the rumor—starting Dec.22nd.

You cannot endlessly speak about the end of the world, and I say this as a doctor, said one member of the Parliament’s environmental committee. Everyone has a different nervous system and this kind of information affects them differently. Some people are provoked to laugher, some to heart attacks, and some to negative actions.

Some  to pack up and run away. Like one of the Preppers   interviewed  about the impending Doomsday was planning to do in the event of disaster: putting his family on bicycles, armed with rifles, wearing combat fatigues, riding from Orange County California to a secluded part of Arizona, stopping along the way at storage units he had pre-stocked with a four month supply of food and other essentials.

When I was in kindergarten in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC, my teacher got on the topic of earthquakes one day, I have no earthly idea why, and declared in her teacherly way that she would never ever live in California, because one day there would be the BIG ONE, and the whole state would slide in to the Pacific Ocean. Starting school had been traumatic enough for me, what with getting on a bus every morning and having to stop crashing the cymbals during rhythm band when she told us to, instead of when I was done  playing. But her story about rumbling earth and vanished coastlines haunted me, especially as my family decided to move West a few years later. This is a dangerous planet was the lessen she had perhaps inadvertently taught me, and  I was headed for its deadliest epicenter.

That first year in California, I had my first earthquake preparedness drill, basically to get under my desk , ducking and covering and holding on when the shaking began. Later that same year, there was a moderately sizable earthquake that opened up big cracks on highway one, which curved around the coast , and my father had been driving on that very road earlier in the day. Over the years I learned in science classes about the seismic waves of earthquakes and how their force could be measured. How common earthquakes were, every day on average somewhere in the world there are two of 2.0 magnitude or greater, more so around the Pacific rim, which is where we were now living, but they could happen almost anywhere. In the United States only Florida, eastern Texas and the upper Midwest have been so far almost entirely immune.


While I got used to the periodic window rattling and dish breaking small to moderate quakes, learning to find an interior doorway to stand in until the quivering stopped, I didn’t get used to the constant talk about the possible catastrophe which seemed to surround me, that that Big One was still to come, and sooner than later.

Part of the time, the talk was around the Bible, the warnings in Revelations about a great earthquake, signs that we were under a curse and headed toward the Day of Judgment. Sometimes it came in academic reports from the seismology laboratory at the university, with warnings about the San Andreas fault and other nearby faults, how powerful they were, how vulnerable we were.

It didn’t help that I knew where the faults lay, and what ground was solid and what was quivering bay fill.  Unless I never left my home, I could not guarantee where I would be when the fault blew, and the ground shook until buildings began toppling and fires began burning.

So one time in the early l970’s, following intense and unremitting publicity about the prediction by one seer or another that the Big One was going to happen, and that California’s coast would indeed fall into the Pacific Ocean, I demanded that my then husband and I get in our aging compact car and drive as far away as possible, to Detroit Michigan where his family lived, and wait til it was over.

The quake of course that never came.

I felt momentarily relieved but existentially still very much afraid, a fear that did not paralyze me on a daily basis, but which continued to create a sometimes vague, sometimes acute sense of dread and of being unsettled. When the earthquake of l989 happened, and the Bay Bridge dove into the water and   highways were sliced open and fires ringed the City and it still wasn’t the Big One,  that was one of the factors in our decision to come to Atlanta.

Where we have been met with tornadoes, hurricanes, ice storms, and yes, even an earthquake.

Because for the most part, as British geologist Derek V. Ager said, the history of any one part of the earth consists of long periods of boredom and short period of terror.

Very few places get a pass from natural violence.  History tells us there have been any number of surprises,  like the discovery in Switzerland this past year that there was a large inland Tsunami in Switzerland, which had been written about in the 6th century, but  about which there had been no geological evidence until now. One of the scientists observed that people believe that if they live by a lake that they are safe from these sudden large banks of waves that can destroy everything in their path. But not necessarily so.

A friend of my husband lives in Tuscon Arizona, a place where so far there have been no natural disasters, nor the conditions that might cause them. She says that she believes that living in such a place causes her no more or less anxiety about living her daily life. Yet even she is not immune from the drummed up hype of imminent doomsday(s) or the coverage of  actual disasters around the world.

In the very brief time since the possible end of the world came and went, there have been blinding snowstorms and strong tornadoes.  A blizzard in western Kentucky. A bad flood in Brazil. A typhoon in the Philippines that killed nearly 300 people, with whole families missing. Yesterday there was a massive earthquake in Alaska, triggering tsunamis in other places.

In the annual The Lives They Lived obituary edition of the New York Times Sunday magazine, along with pieces about the death of Whitney Houston, Neil Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Nora Ephron, among others, there was a memorial article about the death of Paradise Park New Jersey, born as a town around 1951, struck off the map by Hurricane Sandy on October 20012. The storm raised up boats and hunks of dock from the marina and flung them through walls and ceilings. Some homes were peeled off their frames. More than 60 days after this super storm, hundreds of thousands of people and businesses  in the path of Sandy are still waiting for the insurance money they are owed to begin to rebuild their lives.

On Christmas Day in Haiti, three years after their horrendous earthquake that killed 200,000 people and left more than one million homeless, residents in a refugee camp told  a French reporter that hunger and want would mark the holiday, like any other day of the year. There was no wreath or Christmas tree. The best Christmas we could hope for, one woman said, would be to get out of here and live a nice life in a normal home. But she see little possibility of that.

Three years later, she and her family live in this camp with no electricity or running water, in the shadow of a complex of luxury hotels. Endless days of grinding poverty and idleness add to the despair.

More than seven years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and one million people evacuated the region, thousands of mostly poor people still have not been able to come home. Those who returned have seen whole neighborhoods demolished, schools closed, communities torn apart.

Severe weather and natural disasters have been with and will be with us still. The question is what is our human response to these events that cause so much devastation and misery?

Obviously the earth was still here on Dec. 22.This was as expected by both the Mayan and Hopi elders, who maintained all along that  they did not prophesy that everything would come to an end. Rather that the date indicated a time of transition from one world age to another.  In Merida Mexico, thousands danced, chanted and otherwise frolicked around ceremonial fires and pyramids to welcome the beginning of a new era.

A time to make different and better choices about how we enter the future. Moving through with either resistance or acceptance the elders say will determine whether the transition will happen with cataclysmic changes or gradual peace and tranquility. A period of purification, followed by renewal.

What might that look like in a world where nature will still deliver danger and violence?

In an article by Susan Krauss Whitbourne in Psychology Today a couple of years ago, she wrote about the effects of the aftermath of disasters. She pointed out that media coverage of these events documents for days on end the human toll. Why are we so likely, she asked, to stay glued to the news media during these times of crisis? Are we rubberneckers or voyeurs, getting some thrills from others’ misfortunes, even deaths? And why our attraction to fictional and docudrama  films about these disasters year in and year out?

Research on the brain suggests differently: that these events get our attention because they trigger our deepest sense of identification and compassion. Not just actual events, but disaster movies, like 2012, a huge box office success, about almost everyone in the world being swallowed up into the melting top layer of the earth, except the characters in  John Cusack’s family.

By watching the ways in which the movie’s characters make key choices about how to survive, DrWhitbourne  tells us we have the opportunity to test our own decision making and coping mechanisms. What would we do?

The new movie Impossible, which chronicles the story of one family who were victims of the Tsunami in Asia in 2004, is another example of an opportunity to be drawn into their lives, and participate in their horror, their sadness, their survival, enlisting our empathetic responses to their pain and suffering. Their stories become our stories, invoking a desire to help and commiserate, at least in the short run.

A critique of Impossible is that while a compelling and engaging slice of life portrait of one family’s experience of the earthquake and Tsunami which killed an estimated 230000 people  and displaced almost 1.7 million, it focuses on people of privilege, tourists visiting a first class resort. Those rescued and those helped in the hospital are non-Asians, with the resources to secure medical care in Singapore and be flown out on a jet.

When disaster strikes, or as we plan for disasters, what are the values that we undergird our responses and our planning? Do we go the route of Preppers, ensuring that only we and   our immediate family and friends have emergency supplies, protecting ourselves,, preparing for the worst that disaster and human response might bring? Remaining uninvolved and indifferent to those thousands, even millions of people whose lives and communities are shattered, while we are still safe and unaffected?

Can we resist being  passive observers when we could intervene to help: with our checkbooks, our caring presence, our muscle power, our listening hearts, our righteous indignity when racism and classicism or isolationism prevents our systems from working for all who suffer?

Science teaches us some of the why and how this planet of ours is dangerous. Why and how asteroids and meteors strike. Why and how plates shift and earthquakes  shake and tsunamis come behind them. Why and how geysers spray and volcanoes blow.  But it will never stop all of the natural violence, nor make us safe from all harm.

In the face of a sometimes dangerous and unpredictable cosmos, religion can provide comfort, a sense of something beyond this plane of existence to hold on to. It can also cause apathy, an indifference to the physical world, a disconnection from the earth.

It is the human spirit that will show us the way to purification and renewal, the way to rebuilding, the way to justice and the way to true compassion.

Even on such a dangerous planet.

Welcome 2013. A New Year never looked so good.