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Saturday, 20 June 2015 13:32

Terra Infirma: Life after an earthquake

view from hotel rooftop bar
Photo: Timothy Beyer

View from the hotel rooftop bar

The devastating news of the Nepal earthquake this April was a shock to everyone around the world, destroying vast numbers of ancient temples, endangering millions and killing thousands. E&M author Timothy Beyer gives us a unique insight into the reality of the earthquake and its repercussions.

When the noise started outside the window, I idly wondered what such a big lorry could be doing in the narrow road leading to our office. When the rumbling became a shaking, my colleagues and I looked up as one; with a collective, silent "Oh sh**", we left the room and ran down the shuddering stairs and out of the building. 

This is not what you are meant to do in an earthquake. You are meant to hide under a table. If you do leave the building, you are advised to take all the obvious things, including the bright orange "go bag" filled with essentials. My colleagues and I did none of this. We just legged it, leaving behind go bags, phones and, in some cases, shoes. 

The sensation of the earth shaking violently underneath you is hard to convey: there are no easy comparisons. Like night following day, one thing you can usually depend on is that the ground will stay put; and it’s deeply unnerving when it doesn’t. For a few moments, your mind constricts in a way that most of us never experience, focusing on one goal: escape. 

Published in Sixth Sense

"After Fukushima nobody can simply carry on as usual" and claim that our nuclear plants are safe, said German chancellor Angela Merkel on 14th of March 2011, to explain the adventurous shift of her nuclear policy as a consequence of the Japan earthquake. 

This sentence also matches in a way the assessment of a catastrophe 256 years older. "After Lisbon nobody can simply carry on as before and claim that we live in the 'best of all possible worlds' " – that was, in other words, what many European intellectuals felt after the Portuguese capital had been devastated by a fatal earthquake and tsunami on 1st of November 1755.

The "best of all possible worlds" theory had been formulated by Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz in his Essai de Théodicée (1710). It was paradigmatic for the unbroken optimism the early enlightenment had embraced. Yet 39 years after Leibniz's death it was the 1755 earthquake of Lisbon that undermined a central idea of his philosophy. 

But Merkel's adversaries would now object: whoever said nuclear technology was safe (before Fukushima) must have been either ignorant or a lobbyist! Just as Leibniz' posthumous opponents sneered in 1755: whoever said that we lived in the best of all possible words (before Lisbon) must have been either an idiot or a cynic! 

Published in Culturopolia
Saturday, 02 April 2011 05:00

The best of all possible worlds?

An earthquake of magnitude 9, a tsunami of 15 metres, conflagration for days. 85 percent of a blossoming metropolis is devastated, 235,000 people killed. A mental shake-up makes the foundations of age-old world views crumble, and when the initial distress dies away the world finds itself undergoing a process of deep rethinking hitherto unseen. 

This is not Fukushima, this is not the "end of the nuclear era" (Der Spiegel). This is Lisbon on the 1st of November 1755, some will later call it the "end of the optimistic enlightenment era" (Ulrich Löffler). But what the historic disaster causes is both a setback and boost of enlightenment thinking. Some of its shock-waves have shaped modern intellectual Europe – and this is mostly for its good. How could that happen?

Published in Culturopolia
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