It's all our fault, of course
"Just look at the stark contrast between the damage done by similar disasters in different societies. Exactly one year before the Asian undersea earthquake (which measured 9 on the Richter scale), an earthquake measuring 6.3 devastated the Iranian city of Bam. More than 50,000 people were killed, making it comparable to the recent disaster in human terms - although, partly because none of them were Western tourists, we heard less about it. Just four days before the Bam tragedy, an earthquake of similar magnitude rocked California, one of the wealthiest states in the USA. It destroyed buildings, but left just two people dead. The difference between 50,000 dead and two is one of development. Advances in technology, construction and transport mean that natural disasters rarely cause mass casualties in developed societies. Of course, nothing that exists in California could have prevented the huge Asian tsunami creating havoc. But it could have greatly reduced the human cost.
Instead of acknowledging this simple fact, the message implicit in many responses to the Asian disaster is that it is folly for us feeble humans to get ideas above our station and try to do 'too much'. Writing in the London Times, the Conservative Lord William Rees-Mogg argued that 'the tsunami mocks the pride' of our 'arrogant' modern societies, and shows that 'nature, and not mankind, is still the real master'. While conceding that global warming did not cause the Asian disaster, he insisted that 'the tsunami did mimic some of the effects that global warming is now expected to have' if we do not make sacrifices to protect the environment, and speculated as to what impact such a tidal wave might have on London.
In responses such as these, serious journalism meets the sort of 'what if?' scenario popularised by the movie The Day After Tomorrow, in which man-made global warming causes a tidal wave that devastates New York. These Hollywood-style horror stories bear little relationship to the real science of climate change, where there are still serious questions to be answered about the scale and consequences of global warming. But the logic of the argument for economic restraint is to deny those societies struck by the tsunami the chance to achieve the very levels of development that would best equip them to cope with disasters.
Some eco-activists even claim that the tsunami proves development has already gone too far in these countries. One Indian activist claims that South Asia's ancient mangrove forests provided the best protection against the sea, before many were cleared for construction related to the tourism industry. So the road to the future presumably leads back to the mangrove swamps. But the problem is not that 'over-development' in these parts of Asia has somehow disrupted nature. It is that development has not gone nearly far enough. It has been patchy, uneven and concentrated on such fragile sectors as tourism, leaving millions in poverty and exposed to the elements.
If some crackpot preacher suggested that the South Asian disaster was God's vengeance for the sins of the tourist trade, there would be justifiable outrage. Yet if today's eco-preachers imply that it is somehow Nature's revenge for the arrogance of humanity, we are supposed to feel humble and nod along, head bowed.