The Tribune, Chandigarh,16 October 2005
Coping with nature’s fury
by Rajesh Kochhar
We have become so self-absorbed in urbanism that we seem to be losing all sense of proportion, respect for nature and its phenomena as well as the ability to empathise with fellow human beings. The Kashmir earthquake has caused great devastation. Yet, when the television channels broke the story, they were talking about how VIPs and ordinary people alike came out in the open and how chandeliers and ceiling fans started swinging.
All TV channels are product of the same technology, have access to the same resources, and are targeting the same audience. Yet each one of them wants to break a sensational story and that too exclusively.
Mainstream science is rather staid and commonplace. If you want an exclusive science story you must turn to pseudo-science. A TV channel featured a scientist who talked about his hypothesis linking earthquakes with sunspots. To the entire satisfaction of the channel, the legitimacy for the story came in the name of NASA. Did NASA sponsor the sunspot study?
At the current level of knowledge, an earthquake cannot be predicted. Will science progress to a level where such a prediction can be made only time will tell. Man, drunk on engineering and technological successes, wants to straitjacket nature and treat it like a well-trained docile puppy. Nature is very stable and benign. The energy it releases is a minuscule fraction of what it owns. The number of people nature kills is a very small percentage of the number it supports. And its fury lasts but a few minutes.
Human beings are the only species that has the wherewithal to bring about its own extinction. The line between natural and man-made disasters is becoming thinner by the day. We can now cause floods, increase the damage due to them, and refuse to draw any benefit from them even if offered. We cannot cause hurricanes, but we can increase their frequency and probably ferocity through global warming.
Every time a natural disaster strikes, we call upon science and technology to hurry up and provide a solution. This is an exercise in escapism. We seek solutions that lie in the future because it absolves us from doing anything in the present. Most of the problems we face today are our own creation. Let us try to solve them to the extent possible at the current state of knowledge.
We should give up the concept of conquest of nature and treat it with respect and a healthy sense of fear. Let us benefit from its benign aspects and bear with fortitude its fury, knowing that it is but a passing phase. There is nothing we can do when a whole village is buried under landslide. But surely we can avoid constructing high-rise buildings in Muzaffarabads.
The writer is former Director, National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, New Delhi