Monday, March 14, 2011

The Wave of 2011

We all are collections of little prejudices. Here is one of mine. People who think God made the Earth roughly 6,000 years ago, as the chronology of the Bible more or less factualizes, are stupid. It is difficult for me to respect them.

I work with a person who thinks this way. He rages against how Carbon-14 dating has been “disproven” and how it is clear “from studies” that these old primate fossils have nothing to do with human beings. I respect him as a fellow manager and he is often a fun guy. But his religion makes him stupid.

We know the Pacific Ocean is shrinking and the Atlantic Ocean is growing wider at a rate of about one inch per year. The movement of the continents has been happening for hundreds of millions of years. We know this because, among other reasons, the fossil record indicates the landmasses of South America and Africa were once united.

It took about 130 million of years for the Atlantic Ocean to form.

To say this could have happened in 6,000 years (or, even more stupid, to argue it is an absurd rationalization to believe in such an expanse of time) is simply to give too much weight to the requirements of belief. Belief is the last place to seek objectivity. The Bible is not the infallible Word of God. Although a genuine source of spiritual inspiration and wisdom of a sort it is clearly mistaken in tracing the generations back to Adam and Eve. You realize the story of Adam and Eve is a myth don’t you? The story is part of a wider mythology of the Ancient Near East. Invented despite the fact that it might contain more truth than tale, but not in the Judeo-Christian sense.

Now and then, plate tectonics cause the Earth itself to shift or jolt. Where the plates are moving in opposite directions there are periodic shifting earthquakes. Where the the plates directly push into one another the Earth “pops” or jolts.

A jolting earthquake hit Japan this past Friday. At 8.9 on the Richter scale it is one of the strongest ever measured. The Eurasian Plate gave way to the force of the Pacific Plate and a large section of the ocean floor suddenly buckled, the Pacific ending up descending beneath the Eurasian, causing the latter to snap upward. This was very near Japan, off the coast of Honshu.

The sudden movement of enormous magnitude (far greater than, say, the strongest nuclear weapon – humankind can destroy the earth but we cannot create anything as powerful as what happened near Japan last Friday) caused a deadly tsunami that rammed into Japan with extremely violent force. Massive tidal flooding was added to the great earthquake itself.

The result was a national disaster for Japan. Current estimates are that over 10,000 people may have died as a result of the one-two punch of quake and wave. Damage was done to some of Japan’s nuclear power plants and authorities are scrambling to contain a partial meltdown at one reactor. Many people have been treated for radiation exposure. The unstable nuclear plant situation in Japan remains serious as a third reactor explosion was reported late today. If a true nuclear meltdown occurs this national tragedy will become global in its economic scope.

Some of the raw footage of the event is spell-binding. Docks, boats, buildings, hundreds of vehicles, entire coastal areas - all swept away suddenly by a gigantic onslaught of water. A tide of bodies is washing up on what remains of the shoreline.

On the other hand, the part of the split tsunami that ventured away from Japan into the Pacific Ocean found almost no land mass. The Hawaiian Islands were the nearest to the brunt of the wave. Only minor damage was reported there. The rest of this violent force largely dissipated into the deep waters of the Pacific. By the time the wave reached the western coast of America it was a largely spent force. However damaging, these were only energy sapped tsunami ripples.

To consider, not the damage, but the almost cosmic force that caused the earthquake and tsunami is to see things as they are. These plates upon which the landmass of the earth more or less floats are in subtle but perpetual motion. Occasionally, the force is enough to cause faster than usual changes. These are inevitable consequences of living on the Earth. Our home is alive and it quakes.

Fortunately, it seems that this event will not equal the loss of life that occured in the 2004 tsunami. Over 230,000 human beings throughout 14 countries in the south Pacific and Indian Ocean perished then. But, in terms of magnitude, property damage, and possible nuclear contamination, the Wave of 2011 just might surpass 2004. The quake itself was the strongest ever recorded in Japan and one of the five most powerful earthquakes in the world since 1900. It was devastating enough to actually shift the Earth on its axis by about 25 centimeters.

To me, such force is almost unimaginable. Earthquakes occur thousands of times a year all over the globe. As I mentioned, it comes with the territory of living on Earth. On average, earthquakes of a magnitude over 8 only occur once per year, though we had none in 2002 and four in 2007.

The forces of nature are humbling to me and seem to put humanity in its proper place. We are not nearly in control of our destiny (or even our behavior, but for different reasons) as much as we would like to believe. We can reshape the surface of the earth, we can build massive structures, and create comfortable micro-climates. We can render the globe poisonous and uninhabitable for ourselves and other life forms. But, to mistake this power as a "great power" is relative and ultimately an illusion.

From time to time, the far greater forces of Gaia will literally jolt our awareness back to reality. Our Being as individuals or as a species is a marvelous thing of wonder, a soup of mystery and possibility. But, this does not transcend all mysteries and possibilities. A 30-foot wall of water dozens of miles long following the most violent shaking of the very ground beneath our feet shows how indifferent the Being of non-human Being is in relation to us.

Still, I cannot escape my human Being and in times like these I find myself not only acknowledging the cosmic forces in which we count as mere temporal residents at best. Equal to this rather sobering assessment is the intimate connection I feel for my fellow human beings as a whole. The disaster in Japan affects no one I know personally and yet I feel linked to it somehow. We are all fellow travelers, after all, even if we Be as strangers on a bus.

The Wave of 2011, like the great tsunami of 2004, demonstrates to me how much we have in common rather than our differences. The very indifference of the universe is also one of the fundamental things that unites us. The sheer awe I experience from these events is noticeably tempered by a sense of compassion as we all share this planet.

The magnitude of a great wave sweeping over Japan and onto Hawaii and the Pacific Coast, connects all these places, in spite of the great differences in the resulting damage. Somehow, it reacquaints me with the knowledge of a strange, if otherwise casually forgotten, intimacy we all can share. Massive devastation thousands of miles away takes the life of a lone photographer in California. It is connected. It even connects me with that stupid person I work with who is clueless about Time and humanity’s place in the cosmos.

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