Sunday, December 31, 2017

Thirteen Years Ago: My fresh Take on the December 26, 2004 Tsunami Tragedy

This moment 13 years ago totally mattered to me because our children were small and we had hard questions to answer like "Why does God let terrible things like this happen?"  This moment further coincided with my decision to start a blog in 2004.  As you can read below, I took it upon myself to respond to New York Times columnist, David Brooks' January 1, 2005 piece titled, "A Time to Mourn."

It began at 8AM on December 26, 2004 with a 9.3 earthquake in Indonesian waters close to 8 a.m., setting off a deadly tsunami that inflicted devastation from the coastlines of Somalia, in east African, to Sumatra in Southeast Asia, killing approximately 230,000 people.  It had the power of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs (National Geographic Society. "The Deadliest Tsunami in History?"  May 2, 2015).

I imagine that a good number of you remember this time period since most were home for the holidays, and our eyes were all glued to our televisions, watching this colossal disaster and its aftermath of historic proportions unfolding before our very eyes.  
While most earthquakes last for only a few seconds, it is reported that the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake, as it is known to the scientific community, lasted almost ten minutes, triggering other earthquakes as far away as Alaska and causing the entire planet to move at least a few centimeters. The epicenter of the earthquake was 100 miles west of Sumatra, at the western end of the area known as the “Ring of Fire” for its intense seismic activity. That region has been home to more than 80 percent of the world’s largest earthquakes. Since 1900, when accurate measurements began to be made, only three or four earthquakes have rivaled the Sumatra-Andaman in power (see History Channel, for more information).
Instead of global warming being the culprit, it was Earth's tectonic plates pressing against one another to the point that the Earth "shuddered."
The earthquake was the result of the sliding of the portion of the Earth's crust known as the India plate under the section called the Burma plate. The process has been going on for millennia, one plate pushing against the other until something has to give. The result on December 26 was a rupture the USGS estimates was more than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) long, displacing the seafloor above the rupture by perhaps 10 yards (about 10 meters) horizontally and several yards vertically. That doesn't sound like much, but the trillions of tons of rock that were moved along hundreds of miles caused the planet to shudder with the largest magnitude earthquake in 40 years. 
Sadly, and tragically, a third of all killed were children, countless numbers swept into the sea. 

Conflating God with nature, David Brooks raises an existential question regarding who we are as humans before "this catastrophic, genocidal nature," the latter of which often gets romanticized in literature.  Hundreds of thousands of individuals caught in its path seemed cruel and arbitrary, contradicting the view of God and nature as "a nurse or friend."
Rather than falling into an existential crisis myself, I chose to focus in my response (see below) to the building of a global community which I still think is a good response even if I dodged Brooks' question, stating that we need to "address the moral and ethical dimensions of our global relationships" and come together in times of catastrophe like these.  I write this even as FEMA is now an officially broken system (read Bill Weir, CNN, December 21, 2017 "Hellish summer of hurricanes smashes FEMA.")
My fresh take this evening is the potential survivability of a tsunami when local, indigenous knowledge is present and valued.  The case in point regards native islanders from the Indonesian island of Simeulue where the oral tradition together with historical memory of a tsunami that occurred over a hundred years ago in 1907, helped them to assess it accurately and retreat to higher ground with a total of 7 inhabitants dying out of a population of 82,555 that were otherwise vulnerable (read this blog post by Musfarayani which elaborates on this experience in detail; also check out this research study that also notes the importance of education and the oral tradition of native villagers).
The moral of the story here is that if our ways of knowing accord value to ancestral wisdom and local knowledge—and ideally teach this in the educational system itself—nature is no longer the culprit.  Instead, at the heart of the matter are "regimes of truth" aligned to systems of power that either disparage or simply disavow ancestral wisdom, local knowledge, and Earth-conscious ways of knowing.  
So perhaps it's not so much whether nature is a friend or foe, but rather how our epistemologies, or ways of knowing, risk or enhance, our own species survivability. 
Angela Valenzuela

January 1, 2005

Dear Students, Friends, and Colleagues,

I don’t know how else to bring in the new year except to share with you my recent reflections on recent events in South Asia. So if you will indulge me just a bit.

Like most, if not all, of you, I have been glued to the news on this stunning event of colossal proportions. With our two young daughters, ages 8 and 11, we as parents have had to come to grips with what meaning this has for our lives in terms of our understandings, responses, and responsibilities. So much can and should be said about what the meaning of this devastation is for us as individuals, states, and nations.

Brooks (see below) addresses some very fundamental questions about God and nature that are naturally raised in these situations, including, at present, by my own children. And yes, we mourn at the very same time that we are trying to grasp the incomprehensible. The media itself is saying that the pictures and footage simply cannot capture the extent of both the environmental destruction and loss of human life.

To Brooks’ concerns, what is apparent to me is that this tragedy forces us as nations to ask ourselves what our role is to be in a global society. Our corporate state most frequently casts this role in sterile economic or political terms where globalization most typically refers to market conditions, access, and creation. Wherever market interests are at stake, this value finds unfortunate expression in military dominance and expansion.

Yet another clear dimension that this event brings to light is our moral and ethical conduct as global citizens, leaders, and global economic partners or “players” in the international arena. What is that to be? And what form (or forms) does such expression take? Does this not require another kind of discourse that draws on our own social justice values and traditions, as well as on an ethic of mutuality or care? I agree with Brooks who concludes that “It's wrong to turn it [the disaster] into a story about us, who gave, rather than about them, whose lives were ruined.” At the same time, however, I prefer a “giving race” to an arms race and the opportunity for a more profound kind of conversation that acknowledges and respects our shared humanity and predicament.

The Great Book of this event will never be reduced to a mathematical equation or econometric formula. Indeed, other forms of knowledge and an invigorated discourse on democratic values must be brought to bear in order for us to embark on a progressive path of international cooperation—even should such solutions entail market solutions to social and economic problems in poor countries. For example, Columbia economics professor, Jeffrey Sachs’ maintains that our problem is not a need for solutions, but rather for effective international cooperation in order to put those solutions into practice (

I agree with Brooks that “It's wrong to turn it into a story about us,...” at the same time that I think that this is an unprecedented, and indeed historic, challenge and opportunity for all of us to reflect on what our responsibilities are to humanity, in both this specific situation and in general. I just discovered, for example, that we lose at least two million people annually to malaria alone. About 1000 people die in the Western Pacific Region of tuberculosis every day despite the existence of an effective cure. And we probably all know by now that AIDS is ravaging entire countries in Africa in similarly staggering proportions.

Finally, in light of what shall be predictable human-made calamities of possible comparable proportions to that of the earthquake and tsunami of South Asia (check out this piece in Orion Magazine—, it seems important for us to try and get all of this right, right now. Indeed, it is to our own peril that we fail to address the moral and ethical dimensions of our global relationships—particularly between rich and poor countries—as these have direct bearing on our very own survival on this fragile earth and global village that we inhabit.

As for myself, this task begins with me and my family. Best wishes for all in the coming year.


January 1, 2005

A Time to Mourn

I have this week's front pages arrayed on the desk around me. There's a picture of dead children lined up on a floor while a mother wails. There's a picture of a man on the beach holding his dead son's hand to his forehead. There are others, each as wrenching as the last.

Human beings have always told stories to explain deluges such as this. Most cultures have deep at their core a flood myth in which the great bulk of humanity is destroyed and a few are left to repopulate and repurify the human race. In most of these stories, God is meting out retribution, punishing those who have strayed from his path. The flood starts a new history, which will be on a higher plane than the old.

Nowadays we find these kinds of explanations repugnant. It is repugnant to imply that the people who suffer from natural disasters somehow deserve their fate. And yet for all the callousness of those tales, they did at least put human beings at the center of history.

In those old flood myths, things happened because human beings behaved in certain ways; their morality was tied to their destiny. Stories of a wrathful God implied that at least there was an active God, who had some plan for the human race. At the end of the tribulations there would be salvation.

If you listen to the discussion of the tsunami this past week, you receive the clear impression that the meaning of this event is that there is no meaning. Humans are not the universe's main concern. We're just gnats on the crust of the earth. The earth shrugs and 140,000 gnats die, victims of forces far larger and more permanent than themselves.

Most of the stories that were told and repeated this week were melodramas. One person freakishly survives while another perishes, and there is really no cause for one's good fortune or the other's bad. A baby survives by sitting on a mattress. Others are washed out to sea and then wash back bloated and dead. There is no human agency in these stories, just nature's awful lottery.

The nature we saw this week is different from the nature we tell ourselves about in the natural history museum, at the organic grocery store and on a weekend outing to the national park. This week nature seems amoral and viciously cruel. This week we're reminded that the word "wilderness" derives from the word for willful and uncontrollable.

This catastrophic, genocidal nature is a long way from the benign and rhythmic circle of life in "The Lion King." It's a long way from the naturalist theology of Thoreau's "Walden" or the writings of John Muir.

The naturalists hold up nature as the spiritual tonic to our vulgar modern world. They urge us to break down the barriers that alienate us from nature. Live simply and imbibe nature's wisdom. "Probably if our lives were more conformed to nature, we should not need to defend ourselves against her heats and colds, but find her our constant nurse and friend, as do plants and quadrupeds," Thoreau wrote.

Nature doesn't seem much like a nurse or friend this week, and when Thoreau goes on to celebrate the savage wildness of nature, he sounds, this week, like a boy who has seen a war movie and thinks he has experienced the glory of combat.

In short, this week images of something dark and unmerciful were thrust onto a culture that is by temperament upbeat and romantic.

In the newspaper essays and television commentaries reflecting upon it all, there would often be some awkward passage as the author tried to conclude with some easy uplift - a little bromide about how wonderfully we all rallied together, and how we are all connected by our common humanity in times of crisis.

The world's generosity has indeed been amazing, but sometimes we use our compassion as a self-enveloping fog to obscure our view of the abyss. Somehow it's wrong to turn this event into a good-news story so we can all feel warm this holiday season. It's wrong to turn it into a story about us, who gave, rather than about them, whose lives were ruined. It's certainly wrong to turn this into yet another petty political spat, as many tried, disgustingly, to do.

This is a moment to feel deeply bad, for the dead and for those of us who have no explanation.

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