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Lange: Nature And Calamities

05/27/11 7:55AM By Willem Lange
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(HOST)  Commentator Willem Lange has been thinking a lot about natural disasters lately, and the various ways we try to cope with them.

(LANGE)  Years ago, when I was contracting, I had a favorite mantra: "Any triumph of technology over Nature is purely temporary."  I employed it whenever a homeowner or architect came up with an idea whose success depended upon the performance of a product, rather than proven elements of design and construction.  Murphy's Law may not have been published until around 1950, but it's been in force in New England since time immemorial.

Things go wrong; they always have; they always will.  But the definition of "wrong" depends upon your point of view.  Termites, for example, occupy an important niche in the natural world, in which they convert dead and dying plant material into nutrients that benefit future plants.  But they were never considered pests until we arrived and began using dead plant material for our houses right in the middle of their ancestral range.

We don't get excited about natural events that occurred before our lifetimes.  The evidence is strong that a giant meteorite crashed into the earth 65 million years ago where the Gulf of Mexico is now.  Others have left large craters in North America.  We consider them merely curiosities.  One that did get noticed was a meteorite that exploded above Siberia in 1908, flattening almost a thousand square miles of trees.  Most of us have never heard of it.  But if it had exploded over Cleveland or Paris, I daresay we might have.

We tend to ascribe human characteristics and motives to natural events.  We speak of the "wrath of Mother Nature" or "acts of God."  Our word "hurricane," for example, comes from the Taino people of the Caribbean, who believed the winds were sent by an angry goddess of that name.  "Tsunami" translates as "harbor wave," because until recently tsunamis were undetectable until they crashed into some unsuspecting port.  The 1964 Good Friday tsunami in Alaska was caused by a 9.2-magnitude quake that had nothing to do with supernatural forces.  It was simply an oceanic tectonic plate sliding beneath the North American Plate as pressure overcame friction along what geologists call the Aleutian Megathrust.

Recently it's been Japan's turn to experience the combination of natural events and technology's failure to cope with them.  First an 8.9 magnitude offshore subduction quake - and then a destructive tsunami.  A nuclear power plant, which shut down automatically as it was supposed to, suffered damage to several reactors that may be impossible to contain.

While many rush to help the Japanese, the speculators speculate: Is Mother Nature (or God) upset and expressing her or his rage?  Is it, as some mean-spirited bloggers suggest, divine retribution for Pearl Harbor?  No, it's just human beings being human: testing the limits of their technology and luck, and playing like mice - as they always do - between the paws of a sleeping cat.

This is Willem Lange in East Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.
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