Dr Gopee

Of God and global calamities 

— Dr R Neerunjun Gopee 

Just as in the wake of cyclone Katrina which in 2005 devastated New Orleans and much of the environs, analyses continue to be made of various aspects of the before, during and after of the earthquake that has struck the island of Haiti, causing over 300,000 deaths. For example, one issue of the New England Journal of Medicine carried no less than eight articles on the subject after Katrina, naturally mostly of a medical nature, especially the public health impact. The same journal has again published a series of articles about the Haitian earthquake. Of the series of general reporting about the cyclone, some titles in the American press questioned or wondered about the role of God in the event — whether God was in hurricane Katrina, whether he deliberately ordered the hurricane, whether he was punishing sinners or giving a lesson to them and to potential future ones, whether he was putting them through a test of their faith, or why did he not do anything to prevent the cyclone? Some authors even used the term “Mother Earth” while analyzing the phenomenon. In a land imbued with Bushist compassionate conservatism and a deeply-rooted belief in a benevolent father-God firmly seated in the heavens above, this perspective came as a bit of a surprise – although, given the reluctance then to sign the Kyoto Protocol, the same compassion did not seem to extend to the Mother…

Somewhat along the same lines, that is ascribing conscious agency, an article appeared at that time in the UK’s Independent Online News, which began as follows: ‘This will be remembered as the year in which nature made clear its indifference to the fate of mankind. First came the tsunami, which wiped out 225,000 lives on Boxing Day morning. In Niger, the West was slow to wake up to the famine engulfing that African country. Then came Hurricane Katrina, which transformed a vibrant American city into a fetid, uninhabitable swamp. Now comes the Kashmir earthquake.’

Similar soul-searching questions have been asked after the Haitian earthquake, specifically whether God has been punishing the Haitian people, over and above their ill-fate resulting from the interplay of geopolitical and political forces over which they have no control, but in which their Papa Doc Duvalier and his son played significant roles. The term ‘theodicy’ has been used, and as I do not quite understand its profound meaning I will leave it to interested readers to find out for themselves.

Following Haiti, we have since had a major earthquake in Chile, which subsequently suffered several shocks afresh; there has been one on a smaller scale in Iran, and what we perceive as the vagaries of the weather have continued to manifest themselves in various places around the globe. For that matter, here in Mauritius we have been facing a rather prolonged heat wave about which everybody has been complaining, but unlike in say France where an unexpectedly hot summer a few years ago resulted in nearly 20,000 deaths, fortunately we have not had to deplore any death locally that can be ascribed directly to the heat wave.

But what I found rather weird then and which has been repeated now, is the suggestion that nature knowingly deals us blows and/or is concerned about our fate! Whenever something goes wrong, our first reaction is of course to look for a scapegoat – anything or anyone but we ourselves. Especially where human affairs are concerned, we are prompt to try and blame the other for our own failures and weaknesses, as was noted by famous historian Arnold Toynbee in his A Study of History: “One of the perennial infirmities of human beings is to ascribe their own failures to the operation of forces which are entirely beyond their own control and immeasurably wider in range than the compass of human action.”

An easy way out, no doubt – but it does not solve our problems. This is particularly the case where groups and communities of diverse origins live. Politicians and religious leaders are past masters at promoting such a view and exploiting it to hoist themselves or their sagging images, incompetence or failure to deliver to their blinded followers. Or simply to express their own prejudice(s).

However, when it comes to natural phenomena, evoking, invoking or blaming a “God-up-there” does not, alas, get us anywhere. There are sound scientific explanations for what happens, and if they fall short it is because our knowledge is still evolving and far from complete. However, there is certainly enough of it around to account for all these calamities. As an analyst wrote after the tsunami, we have to reckon with the fact that our destiny is geological, in the broad sense of the term. That is, from the beginning of the universe, it is cosmic dust that has been condensing and undergoing alterations continuously, under the influences of fundamental forces which result in geographical, meteorological, climatic and environmental phenomena. Nature is not apart from us, because through our activities we are adding and subtracting to the earth and the atmosphere – gas, liquid and solid waste — in the process of putting up structures to accommodate our expanding horizon of desires. So we are part of the process, and nature’s wrath – a colourful term – is also our doing when we think about it carefully.

Thus, in the case of New Orleans, it was pointed out that it is built literally in a lakebed, with both the ocean and the Pontchartrain lake being higher than the city. That the Blacks happened to occupy the lowest-lying areas of this bed is another story… The levees were not built, apparently, to withstand gale forces of the intensity of Katrina’s – but again, there had been (according to what came up after the event ) much advance warning from engineers and scientists who make computer-simulated projections that something had to be done, and quick. For one, adequate funding was required to reinforce the levees across the Mississippi river – but was not provided. The point is that it is human agency that is at work too, and not only the natural phenomena. If New Orleans had not been built on the lakebed, if the most vulnerable inhabitants had been evacuated as soon as the danger had been realized, if there had been better coordination amongst the various agencies…

What is evident from the succession of catastrophes that have been our unfortunate lot in recent times, occurring across all continents indiscriminately, is that we must now expect them to happen anywhere, any time. The analyst who was writing after the tsunami gave examples of its occurring, in the past, in certain unexpected places. There are known fault lines on the ocean bed along which upheavals take place – again, it is the activity of the molten core of the earth that is taking place according to the self-same fundamental forces which have no human dimension that we know of! — but there are also hitherto unknown ones that have yet to be detected and mapped out. And they may be the ones responsible for the waves that occur unexpectedly.

The Oxford University Press has published a series of titles called ‘A Very Short Introduction,’ and one of them that I was lucky to pick up recently is about ‘Global Catastrophes.’ At the very beginning the author cautions us that ‘we must always keep in our minds that we exist and thrive only by geological accident,’ and ‘we must face the fact that as long as we are all confined to a single planet in a single solar system, prospects for the long-term survival of our race are going to be tenuous.’ And proceeds to give us the scientific explanations available to date, and which continue to evolve, about the reasons for global catastrophes. Leaving God alone, to kill his children or otherwise. Worth a read. 

RN Gopee

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