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Fear Nature, Not Technology


Fear Nature, Not Technology

August 18, 1999
Energy & EnvironmentTechnology / Infrastructure

Yesterday’s devastating earthquake in Turkey killed more than 2,000 people and injured at least 10,000. The worst damage apparently occurred in around the industrial city of Izmit, where an oil refinery caught fire. Turkey will respond, and with it the rest of the world, rushing in cranes and bulldozers to clear the rubble, along with food, clean water, diesel generators, fuel to power them, antibiotics and vaccines. Experience teaches that often many more people die in the aftermath of a natural disaster than directly from it—for want of simple necessities and the infrastructure of pipes and roads, food, water supplies and power lines that make possible their timely delivery.

According to early reports, the Turkish quake measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, just a shade less powerful than the 7.9 magnitude San Francisco quake of 1906. That one killed 700 people. What human toll would a repeat exact in the U.S. today? It would be far costlier in dollar terms than Tuesday’s quake, for the simple reason that we have more in the way of economic assets to destroy. But notwithstanding our nuclear power plants, highways and highrises, the death toll from a comparable U.S. quake and its aftermath would likely be lower.

Less Vulnerable

We are less vulnerable to natural disaster than we used to be, and less vulnerable than most of the rest of the world. Less vulnerable notwithstanding all our highrises and high technology. Indeed, less vulnerable because of them.

The multibillion-dollar natural disaster in the U.S. today—hurricane, tornado, earthquake or flood—typically costs dozens of lives, or very occasionally hundreds. But rarely more. And because our emergency forces are able to respond so quickly and effectively, those lives are almost always lost as a direct consequence of nature’s violence, rather than in its aftermath. For all its pesticides and nukes, its fossil-fuel engines and its bio-engineered crops, Western capitalism has become very robust and resilient indeed.

The technologies and resources Turkey now needs the most are the ones humanity has been repeatedly advised to abandon. In the days to come, Caterpillar’s earthmovers will roll in to dig the living and the dead out from Istanbul’s rubble. Engineers will deploy heavy machinery to rebuild the water pipes, sewer systems and roads. If Turkey needs emergency food supplies, it will call on the Iowa farmer, and the abundance of his bio-engineered grains, broad-spectrum pesticides and combine harvesters—not on an organic vegetable garden lovingly tended by the Prince of Wales. The food will be airlifted to Turkish airports by fuel-guzzling transports. Nobody will waste time flying solar collectors to Istanbul: solar is a hobby for comfortable people who can plug into a conventional grid if they need to. When electricity is powering the rescue workers’ lights, drills and pumps around the clock, you burn diesel.

For many years we have been advised that the real perils lie not in nature’s fault lines but in high technology’s. This is the sand-pile theory of technological advance. Its most prominent proponent is Vice President Al Gore. The story runs something like this: The technology that subdues nature so effectively will subdue man, too. Pesticides, nukes and transgenic mice are inherently unstable. They are like so many sand piles—so many avalanches just waiting to go critical. Sooner or later, as Mr. Gore concludes in his 1992 manifesto, "Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit," they are bound to crash down upon us.

All the evidence bearing on accident rates and mortality statistics is directly to the contrary. Most of capitalism’s technological creations, it turns out, are not sand piles at all—they behave, instead, more like stable gobs of honey. If they were getting more brittle, catastrophic accidents would become more numerous year by year. In fact, catastrophic failures of dams, power plants, jumbo jets and chemical factories are growing less frequent.

And the wealth and power that this resilient technology delivers have proved to be the best defense we have against nature’s catastrophes. Technology can’t stop an earthquake—not yet, though in time it may do that too. But it has produced stronger buildings and highways, more robust power systems and the capabilities of instant, material response that can save thousands of lives in the aftermath.

Capitalism’s high technology has proved even more essential in staving off bio-catastrophes—not killer tomatoes concocted by Monsanto, but killer viruses that emerge from swamps and rain forests. The biosphere, like the geophysical environment, doesn’t love us or hate us, it just wholly lacks an attitude. The rainforest periodically releases Ebola, typhoid, cholera, malaria and leprosy. There may be a cure for AIDS somewhere up there in the trees, too, but trees are also where HIV came from in the first place, by way of monkeys. The totality of nature has not been mystically perfected for human benefit. Darwin teaches otherwise.

Free markets, by contrast, do have an attitude—a life-affirming one. Safety, resilience and stability sell better than the alternatives. Capitalism ends up crafting things accordingly. Technology, it turns out, is less fickle, less unstable, than nature. It can do us harm, and sometimes does, but for the most part it is designed to do us good. Nature isn’t.

Sheltering Us

For several decades now, green oracles of catastrophe have been trying to pin earthquake scenarios on capitalism, and its technological fruits. Return to nature, they insist, and we reclaim the better life—cleaner, safer, more stable. They have it completely wrong. Capitalism and its technology don’t end in catastrophe; they distance us from it. They don’t cause catastrophe, they stand as our main shelter and defense against it.