- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2005

People often speak of earthshaking events, but the tsunami in the Indian Ocean was one, in the most literal sense.

The underwater earthquake that produced it didn’t just move dirt where it happened, but rattled the planet itself. The force was so great it affected the Earth’s rotation, accelerating it by one ten-thousandth (.0001) of a second per day.

In the places hit by the tsunami, the effect was far more noticeable. The tens of thousands of people killed by the gargantuan waves that pounded coastal areas from Thailand to Somalia were helpless in the face of the literally unimaginable forces unleashed by the quake.

Try imagining the sudden shift of a 745-mile-long section of the Earth’s crust (more than the distance from Chicago to Atlanta) that generates gigantic columns of water traveling at the speed of a jet, to wreak destruction four time zones away. You can think of it, but you can’t really visualize it. The scale is too vast to comprehend.

Moments like these mock the notion of human beings living in harmony with nature. When did nature live in harmony with us?

The natural world can be wondrous in its beauty and mystery, but it is not our friend. It is a pervasive, relentless threat to our mere existence. And that threat often is carried out. The story of civilization is the story of humanity’s progress in subduing, exploiting and overcoming nature for the benefit of ordinary people.

By reducing our vulnerability, this progress fosters the illusion of nature as benign and maternal. In fact, it is the greatest mass killer in history, dwarfing the bloodthirstiest tyrants the world has ever seen. Those most vulnerable to the tsunami, not surprisingly, were those living closest to nature, who are least able to insulate themselves from its shattering power.

Our forebears who settled this continent didn’t see the wilderness as beautiful and beguiling: They were too busy trying to wrest subsistence from it while warding off its myriad hazards. They would have been astonished at the idea of using government power to protect dangerous creatures from extinction — as we have in the case of grizzly bears, mountain lions and even rattlesnakes. Many of them would have been happy to eradicate every last one of these beasts.

The point is not that nature is something we should fear and despise. The point is that seeing it as something to cherish and protect is a luxury of affluence — and that affluence arises only from the intelligent deployment of natural resources for selfish human purposes.

Having reached our current standard of living, our wish to preserve natural vistas, wild areas and animals once considered mortal enemies is entirely appropriate — if not for their intrinsic value, then for their intangible contributions to the world we inhabit. In addition, it’s a simple matter of collective self-interest that we should do our best to avert environmental destruction (such as air pollution and climate change) that harms people.

But appreciation of nature should never become worship, and it shouldn’t foster disdain for humanity and its petty needs. Only material progress offers hope to the world’s destitute. Their numbers are just as unfathomable as the greatest natural catastrophe. And material progress requires prudent subordination of nature to the requirements of economic development.

Indians and Somalis will use far more of the world’s resources and pollute more when they attain modest wealth than they do today. That is a significant price, but worth paying.

This tradeoff is at the heart of what it means to be human. In a primitive state, people are battered by forces they can’t understand, much less control — not only flooding and drought and cold, but predators and simple accidents and infectious disease. Death lurks at every turn.

In the advanced world, by contrast, human beings are more or less assured of freedom from ceaseless fear. They are excused from toil and deprivation to pursue activities that add nothing to life but pleasure. That’s what we call civilization.

One of the things we learn to appreciate in civilization is nature in its splendor. But more splendid than any of the natural world’s wonders is our ability to liberate ourselves from its perils. That task, as we were reminded this week, is still unfinished, and still urgent.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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