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[Earthquake Pun Here]? Nah, Too Tsunami.

March 16, 2011

It’s safe to say that the whole world felt it when Japan quaked. After weeks of upheaval and uprisings around the world, the world upheaved and uprose in a very concentrated way. The locus of geologic pressure and tension created by the intersection of tectonic plates has also shifted the locus of public attention and sense of crisis to Japan. Not improperly so. But perhaps ironically so, given that the world is large and fast right now, and it faces crises across several continental plates.

An 8.9 magnitude earthquake and resultant tsunamis is truly a tragedy of biblical proportions. Japan and the areas around it will be recovering from this force majeur for years. Those preceding sentences seem like they could have been easily ripped from the headlines (or at least the lead paragraph). I find some irony in that the terminology of natural disasters is usually used specifically to disclaim any kind of human agency or responsibility in their occurrence. But then the “act of God” becomes an issue of theology; politicos with religious agendas (and vice versa), like Glenn Beck, will call these events a “message from God,” usually carrying some specific denunciation or retribution for some specific human activity (that the human denouncer conveniently has the rare clairvoyance to identify). These attempts to link natural disasters to God’s interventionist will is nothing new in human history, but all the more patently false in light of the amassed evidence and understanding of the world. It is a testament to human sympathy and understanding of science that even Glenn Beck has had to remain vague and non-committal in his denunciations, given how obviously ridiculous pinning the earthquake on a specific group would be.

What God does is God’s business. But I’ll tell you this, whether you call it Gaia or whether you call it Jesus, there’s a message being sent. . . . ‘Hey, you know that stuff we’re doing. It’s not really working out. Maybe we should stop doing some of it.’ I’m just saying.

Some would say there was plenty of human agency in how the earthquakes and tsunamis slammed Japan, and that it was not mere fortune that Japan had such strict building and zoning codes that were designed to mitigate the effects of such disasters. That was careful, considered, and conscientious civic engineering and foresight. There were no corners cut, efficiencies gained, temporary interests given exceptions. And that’s why there weren’t thousands of people living in exposed areas or buildings in a way that could have multiplied the casualties several orders of magnitude higher than the disaster unfortunately required.

And despite their careful disaster management techniques, it is not without some poetic irony that the earthquake has been estimated to have generated energy that was roughly equivalent to the energy the US consumes in a year, given the resultant fears over the integrity of several Japanese nuclear reactors. While they were built to withstand earthquakes of magnitudes up to 7.9 on the Richter Scale, the 8.9 that rocked Sendai was ten times as strong, and has kept the news headlines rapt in attention as explosions and leaks at those facilities create new fears every hour. And while “nuclear” + “explosion” is a recipe for destruction, there has been a dearth of context in the coverage of how well-designed these nuclear power plants were with their multiple layers of redundancies of failure protection. Redundancies that would undoubtedly be called “waste” in a venture where “efficiency” and not safety was the prime directive.

Efficiency may have more to say in directing the distribution of capital. Yet one wonders whether the millions (and probably billions) of dollars that will flow to Japan could have been more efficiently donated directly to NGOs with greater efficiencies of scale and results to be achieved with additional financing.

We are all better at responding to human suffering caused by dramatic, telegenic emergencies than to the much greater loss of life from ongoing hunger, disease and conflict. That often results in a mess of uncoordinated NGOs parachuting in to emergency areas with lots of good intentions, where a strategic official sector response would be much more effective. Meanwhile, the smaller and less visible emergencies where NGOs can do the most good are left unfunded.

In the specific case of Japan, there’s all the more reason not to donate money. Japan is a wealthy country which is responding to the disaster, among other things, by printing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of new money. Money is not the bottleneck here: if money is needed, Japan can raise it.

It is a simple axiom of economics that if all donations were made to the same organization, they would have decreasing returns to scale. Pick your own worthwhile charity to donate to, not the one that each of your friends has retweeted.

And, of course, another layer of irony is the simultaneous outpouring of relief efforts and scam artistry: reports have emerged concerning the more than 1.7 million malware pages, 419 scams trading on the Japanese disasters, 50+ fake domains with “Japan tsunami” or “Japan earthquake” in their URLs. Perhaps another irony is that both participants can be perfectly happy in a scam transaction if the donor does not know that it is a scam; the psychic return results from the act of merely giving, not reveling in the achievement of some solution or goal.

There is some additional irony in that the relative wealth and technological advancement of Japan has given rise to even more sympathy by virtue of the extensive and thorough documentation of the crisis. A nation whose cameras have been stereotypically at the ready for decades generated more dramatic and impactful testimonial images and video than the maybe any other country in the world.

And while the resultant sympathy and attention for Japan’s problems are deserved, one wonders whether the Libyans, Yemenites, or Saudi Arabians working to take down their regimes will suffer in the form of their own casualties as a result of the world’s diverted attention.  One hopes there are enough people working in enough capacities with enough capital and resources that we don’t fail to act in those other ways that promote other valuable ends in the world.

Regardless of whether it was an act of God or nature that caused the earthquake, it is the acts of men with which we must now be concerned.  There are men far worse than God or nature waiting for us to lose our focus, and then it would be we who create the next tragedy.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Janet permalink
    March 16, 2011 1:30 pm

    I think it’s a good point that in certain cases, like in the case of optimal security measures at the Japan nuclear plants, it’s important for the government to create inefficiencies. Contracting out national security to self-interested, profit-maximizing companies can cause huge risks. (Ahem, US)

    • SlickRickSchwartz permalink*
      March 16, 2011 1:34 pm

      Another great place for government to step in and create inefficiency: education. Or a subject closer to my life these days: justice. Think about what the market-efficient equilibrium would be for “justice,” and you’ll how much profitable criminal activity would have to be legalized if society only worshiped at the altar of efficiency.

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