Friday, March 03, 2017

Human constraints on engineering solutions

If like me, you live in earthquake country -- or unlike me in "tornado alley" or on an historic hurricane track -- you might find Robert Muir-Wood's The Cure for Catastrophe: How We Can Stop Manufacturing Natural Disasters interesting reading. This is a survey, rich with stories and anecdotes, of how natural forces -- tectonic plates, storms, rising seas -- interact with what he calls "disaster culture." The latter is the accumulated knowledge that human societies preserve and can nurture, if they so choose, of what actions help survival in infrequently experienced extreme circumstances. Inherited culture teaches people how to take care of themselves, for example by evacuating at the first hint of an oncoming storm or running for high ground before a tsunami hits. Modern engineering can improve human and social outcomes in natural disasters, but without continuing care for culture, building codes will be evaded and memories of how to survive will be lost. Muir-Wood is calling on scientists and governments dealing with catastrophes to take a much broader view of their task.

I particularly appreciated his account of reactions to San Francisco's 1906 earthquake. These days we commemorate that shaker with some civic enthusiasm. But not then.

In those days, Japanese scientists were, of necessity, leading the world in inventing modern seismology, the study of earthquakes. Hearing of the 1906 trembler, the most ambitious exponent of the new discipline, Fusakichi Omori, set sail for California.

On arrival in California on May 18, Omori was astonished to discover that while there were leading science and engineering universities around the San Francisco Bay, there were no earthquake researchers. California was an increasingly sophisticated society, and fast losing its frontier and gold rush mentality, but it retained a deeply held prejudice that engaging in earthquake research would imply there was a tangible "earthquake problem."

... On July 11, inspired by Omori, a conference was held in Berkeley "for all those interested in seismological equipment on the Pacific coast." ... He brought with him a gift for the University of California at Berkeley -- one of his own design seismic recorders. The equipment was gratefully received, as the university had no hope of obtaining a recorder through state funding. ...

However fieldwork in California proved a challenge for a dapper Japanese gentleman: Omori was stoned by a gang of children on Mission Street in San Francisco and assaulted for being a suspected strikebreaker in Eureka.

... the 1906 earthquake had only served to intensify and popularize the culture of "earthquake denialism," led by the "boosters" intent on suppressing any earthquake research or publicity that might threaten Californian prosperity or discourage immigrants from relocating to the state.

Within a week of the April 19 earthquake, the San Francisco Real Estate Board passed a resolution to rebrand the "San Francisco Earthquake" as the "San Francisco Fire." ... No memorial was erected to commemorate those who died ... Even a century later, in 2003, when an attempt was make to erect a brown commemorative historical sign at Daly City, the closest land location to the epicenter (and a community founded by refugees from the disaster), the initiative was twice rebuffed by the mayor, who explained: "We don't need a blemish on Daly City's shine."

At length, the study of seismology did take root in California, but only after decades of neglect and protest.

It's interesting to consider this history in the context of climate change denialism today. We humans just don't want to face the disruptive consequences of natural processes smashing up against and into populations. These days, it is possible to imagine that planning and engineering could much reduce the impacts of natural catastrophes on people; we know how to build in resilience that would mitigate the effects of storms and earthquakes. Societies that are rich enough even do a good deal of this. But, in general, we are not good at remembering and holding onto consciousness of threats that are sporadic and infrequent.

Experience suggests it is going to take frequent, fearsome consequences of global warming before we realize that mitigation and built resilience are essential. And that means things will get a lot worse before there's much chance of their getting better.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails