Gloom and Doom Report

When I considered doing this article I had a flashback to doing book reports in what we called Junior High, when I was a teenager. I remember in particular the seventh-grade English teacher with a mangled middle finger who started off the year telling each class his chilling tale. It seems that Mr. B had a terrible problem with anger. He carried sixteen penny nails with him to chew on when he got really upset, which was his anger management technique…it kept him from physically destroying the human object of his anger. Evidently, a student made him angry one day when he had run out of nails. To avoid bloody homicide, Mr. B claims, he shoved his own finger into his teeth. It left him with this mangled finger that he used every year to convince his students to treat him nicely.

So, on with the book report. Mr. B would want me to compare and contrast these books on a similar theme. The books I recently finished reading are two that deal with ways in which humankind deals with natural disasters and the natural rhythms of our world. In the order in which I read them, the first is Cascadia’s Fault, by Canadian journalist Jerry Thompson, and the second, Brian Fagan’s The Long Summer. What links the two books in my mind must be their common theme of the role that forces of nature play in determining human history.

Fagan first, then. Although he is a prolific author whose works on cultures and archaeology ought to excite me, I had never read anything he wrote until I picked up The Long Summer in a hurried visit to the University Bookstore in Seattle. On further research, it turns out that he is by origin an English academic whose publishing career diversified from textbooks to popular (or as he terms it, general) science and archaeology in the 1980s.

In The Long Summer, How Climate Changed Civilization, Fagan looks behind human historical events to discern the way climate motivates such events. How, for instance, early human hunters and gatherers followed their food sources into and out of  Siberia and Europe in the wake of the precession and recession of recurrent ice ages.  Fagan draws on recent science to build his thesis. He refers to ice cores from Antarctica, sediment cores from Venezuela, Greenland and other sea bottoms, lake sediments and so forth. He goes to great lengths to explain how salinity and water temperature affect ocean currents, which in turn influence the climate of continents like Europe, Asia and North America. He also examines how weather patterns shift from one latitude to another in response to a number of climatic and astronomical influences. Patterns of rainfall and drought that emerge provided opportunities and motivations for human cultural adaptation and migration.

Fagan uses examples from all over the world, although I found it interesting that one of the oldest human civilizations, that of China, is so little remarked upon that the term doesn’t even appear in the index. Maybe he’s saving that for another book? He’s recently published at least five titles bearing on the relationship of human adaptation to climate change.

In his effort to clarify historical processes as they relate to climate, Fagan repeatedly makes use of the analogy of a pump or a set of lungs, breathing in and out again:

The steppe/tundra acted like a pump, sucking in reindeer and their predators in the spring, pushing them out with the first frosts of fall.

While the image does describe the oscillations of nature, I found it a little tiring. But then, most of my criticism of this book is stylistic. Fagan uses his imagination a little too liberally for my tastes when he describes how humans acted or what they felt in response to some dramatic global events, or even the yearly cycle of growth and decay that they experienced. Sometimes he makes statements that might be difficult to prove:

What held Maya society together was the institution of kingship…Maya lords were shaman-rulers who interceded with the powerful forces of the supernatural in elaborate public ceremonies where they appeared in trance before their people…A compelling ideology and a powerful, unspoken social contract bound noble and commoner to lord and provided the rationale for building cities and ceremonial centers that were symbolic re-creations of the mythic world.

Statements such as this might be stretching the understanding we have about ancient societies that left so little literature to explain their interactions and their paradigms.

But the point of Fagan’s book, that people are enthralled to the changing forces of nature, is substantially sound. He describes the process of civilization as a process of making ourselves more and more vulnerable to climatic disasters. As we are tied to one place, as our populations soar, as we rely on irrigation or transportation to support that overwhelming mass of people, we become more and more exposed to natural disaster.

One of his most intriguing descriptions is the one in which the ancient Euxine Lake is inundated by a flood of salt water through a newly developed Bosphorus. The event occurred around 6,000 years BC, and evidently caused the lake to swell at a rate of around 15 centimeters a day. It displaced farming communities and thriving settlements over a large section of eastern Europe, and Fagan cites it as a prime motivation for the export of farming skills into central and western Europe. How did I miss the news of this event?

Events of this magnitude can’t help but be reflected in human history. Which leads to the other book, Cascadia’s Fault. For twenty five years, Canadian journalist and broadcaster Jerry Thompson has been studying earthquakes and tsunamis, which is just about how long it has been since scientists began to recognize that a Cascadia Fault lies some thirty miles off the northwest coast. Stretching around 1,100 miles, from Cape Mendocino in California, to the coast of Vancouver Island, the fault has been relatively silent for all this time. But Thompson describes how scientists began to recognize that the silence along this fault doesn’t necessarily mean that we are safe.

Thompson compares the effect of earthquakes in Chile and Indonesia to what might happen along the North Pacific coast if the Cascadia Fault suddenly tore free of whatever is keeping it still. He describes the science behind what we know about this fault, including the mysterious clues that led to the rediscovery of the last major earthquake that occurred on Cascadia’s Fault. Piecing together evidence from shell middens that seemed out of place, sunken forests, tsunami sands and recorded reports of a powerful tsunami that struck the coast of Japan around eight o’clock in the morning of January 28, 1700, the story of a powerful earthquake on the northwest coast unfolds.

Thompson goes on to analyze how prepared we are for what might happen along this coast when (not if) the Cascadia Fault ruptures. The news is not good. Here is the doom and gloom. Our skyscrapers (indeed anything seven stories tall or more) will likely collapse from harmonic tremors. Many of our cities will sink in liquified soil, destroying infrastructure that supports our society. Airports, railroads, shipping terminals, roadways…virtually every form of shipping we have will be destroyed. Tsunami waves will devastate coastal communities with less than eight minutes of warning in many cases. The power grid will collapse. Dams may or may not break. Smaller settlements will be neglected as aid is channeled towards the larger cities. Thompson’s analysis is not pretty.

But it is probably correct. We all know we live in a geologically active region. Volcanoes and earthquakes abound. Yet we continue to neglect some basic rules of survival. Our buildings and our roads aren’t designed with the worst in mind. The Nisqually quake a few years back closed Seatac Airport. Look what happened in Japan when they suffered a quake like the one Thompson is predicting. Nobody expected a nuclear disaster as result of a severe earthquake. And how prepared are we for the potential food and water emergencies that will result from the devastation of our transportation network? At my school, the outgoing administrator didn’t even call for monthly fire drills as the law requires, let alone earthquake drills. I can recall only a couple in the ten years of his administration. We keep enough emergency food and water for a couple of days in boxes in our classrooms. But a major quake is going to disrupt supplies for almost everybody in the northwest for months.

Thompson gives some good advice to individuals and governments. There are times when I feel that his writing is too alarmist, but maybe that is what we need to sober us up.

Throughout history, we have had to adapt or migrate to survive sudden cataclysmic events or gradual climatic shifts. But we haven’t had the benefit of advance warning and analysis that might have helped us prepare for such events. Let’s take advantage of books about gloom and doom to make ourselves better prepared for what is, in fact, inevitable. One day our fault will break. Sometime winter will succeed our Long Summer.


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