It Is Not The Earthquake That Kills You

The real hazard is humans, not nature

When we talk about natural hazards, are we right to include earthquakes? Floods will drown you, fires will burn you, and snowstorms will freeze you, but earthquakes? Unless you have the highly improbable misfortune of falling into an opened fault line, it is not the earthquake per se that imperils your health. There always has to be an intermediate entity, almost always a building, which does this.

So the question then, when it comes to earthquakes, is where actually does the hazard lie, with nature or with culture? The answer is: with building codes and practices, and therefore with culture. We could say the same is true with floods, fires and avalanches in the sense that allowing construction on flood plains and in forests and permitting off-piste skiing constitute cultural hazards, but those activities do not rise to the same level of malevolence as shoddy and corrupt building practices.

Construction codes and practices

The real hazard then is humans, not nature, and the next question is therefore what we should do about it. Of course, many of the building hazards in Italy and elsewhere throughout the world where earthquakes are common, are not the result of corrupt actions such as a building firm using poor quality concrete to construct an apartment building in order to save money, but are simply products of a time when construction codes and practices were less developed in terms of engineering from how they are now. To retrofit these buildings or in some way remove or mitigate the hazards they constitute would be difficult or impossible for economic and political reasons. Nevertheless, the danger they present is cultural in origin, not natural.

Does it matter whether a hazard is cultural or natural? I think so. The early philosophers were more likely to use the word ‘evil’ rather than ‘hazard’, which has more of a modern and technocratic ring, but I still find the word ‘evil’ to have important currency. I argue that natural hazards are not evil in the sense that cultural hazards are evil, because the indifference of the natural event stands in contrast to the intention of the cultural one. I know that we can scramble this binary effectively to argue that even earthquakes, let alone the shark that bites your leg, has an intention in a way, because all natural events have an origin and a motive, but because their agency lies in a register that is different from the human one, it cannot really be considered evil, and it is the evil that we have to worry about, for philosophical as well as practical reasons.

How do you retrofit a 12th century church without compromising its beauty?

What then can we do about it? Better building codes? Check. Better building practices? Check. Better code enforcement? Check. Better retrofitting? Check, with a caveat, because it is so fraught by economic, political, social and cultural constraints. How do you retrofit a 12th century church without compromising its beauty? How do you pay for it? How do you organize support for the intervention and convince the people who use it, visit it and live near it that the work is good and necessary?

Take for example the earthquakes that occurred in Lazio, Abruzzo, Umbria and Marche in recent years. How easy would it have been to execute preventive measures in these areas? Considering all of the challenges, I assess that it would have been nearly impossible.

So if removing earthquake hazards by retrofitting buildings is not the answer, what is? Maybe interventions in behavior might have a good effect. Rupert Sheldrake, a highly innovative British scientist, recently suggested that early warning systems hold some promise. He noted that in the days leading up to the earthquake that struck Assisi in 1997, merchants had been complaining to authorities that rats had emerged from the underground sewers and were swarming the streets, interfering with tourist and other commercial activities in the city. Did the rats know that an earthquake was coming? Could the sudden change in their behavior be interpreted as a warning sign? If so, buildings might not be able to be spared, but certainly lives could be saved by moving people out of harm’s way, at least temporarily. But imagine the discord that would be caused by such a policy, which would have to be somewhat vague, mandating for example that residents of certain buildings would all have to sleep in the local sports arena for a week or so, to avoid being crushed by falling debris in case of an earthquake. There is no doubt that many would declare the cure to be worse than the disease.

Earthquake and architecture

In this piece you can see a convergence of the three themes that guide my writing: the secular and the religious, culture and agriculture, and of course earthquake and architecture. Sheldrake, along with Stefano Mancuso and Monica Gagliano, the other two scientists who I have written about, are keen about crossing boundaries in their work. Sheldrake’s idea that rats have something to tell us about earthquakes meshes nicely with Mancuso and Gagliano’s similar regard for plants, with each scientist arguing for conceptions of the social that extend beyond the human, to include not only plants and animals, but even inanimate things. As many poets have written, the world is charged with energies and agencies of all kinds, and the sooner we recognize this, the better off we will be. The great French philosopher and scientist, Michel Serres, walks a similar path, examining phenomena and processes such as parasitism as they occur across multiple ontologies: human, animal, vegetal and even mineral.

Earthquakes, trees, rats, human beings – we are all in this together, they seem to be saying. We should act accordingly. It is a strange idea but a good and timely one, given how the relation between human beings and the world is morphing so dramatically during this era of anthropogenic climate change.