Chapter 10: So, You're Bored by Doomsday?
Not Just One Great Flood
In 1994, when an earthquake off the Russian coast triggered a tsunami
alert in Hawaii, coast guard helicopters hovered over the seashore
with bullhorns urging surfers to leave the water and seek safe ground.
The surfers refused. They wanted to catch the big one.
Meanwhile, bewildered tourists thought it was a salami alert
and swore off sandwiches for fear of food poisoning.
One expert who saw this noted, in a wry understatement, that most
people have no idea of what these waves are or the power behind
Were sea-loving animals. More than a third of world population
and economic capacity are less than two hundred miles from a coastline.
As long as our love affair with the ocean persists, we face the
constant threat of mass
destruction by tsunami, hurricane, and sea rise or fall. Still,
many of us seem blissfully unaware of the implications.
In the year 2000, discovery of ancient houses hundreds of feet
beneath the Black Sea surface gave convincing evidence that, 7,500
years ago, it was transformed from a lake to a sea by a gigantic
flood, when a dam collapsed
that had held back the Mediterranean.
If such collapses seem too fantastic or remote to believe, look
back only to 1958 in Alaska, when a giant piece of a peninsula collapsed,
carrying fishing boats on a titanic wave inland then out to sea
again. Several eyewitness accounts, photographic evidence and records
gathered by established scientists confirmed this event.
This was the highest wave ever recorded - over 50 times the height
of an ordinary tsunami, and taller than any building in the world.
Hawaii and North Americas west coast have long been known
to be at risk from tsunami, but most residents of Americas
east coast would be shocked to learn that theyre also in the
potential path of such a monster. New Scientist writer Tristan Marshall
puts it concisely:
Any day now, a gargantuan wave could sweep westwards across
the Atlantic towards the coast of North America. A mighty wall of
water 50 meters [150 feet] high would hit the Caribbean islands,
Florida and the rest of the eastern seaboard, surging up to 20 kilometers
inland and engulfing everything in its path
. The Atlantic
will start its journey 6000 kilometers away, when half
an island crashes into the sea.
Chapter 11: An Elephant in the Room of Environmentalism
A sad commonality links disasters such as the Kobe earthquake with
destruction of Homestead, Florida by Hurricane Andrew, annihilation
of Nicaraguas economy by Hurricane Mitch, and hobbling of
the Los Angeles infrastructure by the Northridge earthquake. In
many cases, after emergency relief crews have left, victims are
For example, the California earthquake insurance system suffered
a blow to its credibility when its Insurance Commissioner, whose
role was to protect consumers against questionable insurance industry
practices, was found by the California State Auditor to have abused
his discretionary authority in the settlement of enforcement actions
against insurance companies that handled claims from the 1994 Northridge
The scandal made newspaper headlines for more than a year. It was
especially pertinent because it occurred in one of the wealthiest
and most closely regulated economies in the world, rather than,
for example, in a developing nation.
Thus, it appears that no one is immune to exploitation after a
Reconstruction is also often botched. In the rush to rebuild, the
same mistakes are repeated. Often we fail to take advantage of the
openings offered by such disasters to modify the underlying infrastructures
that led to the problem in the first place.
Chapter 14: Tools for Diffusing Time Bombs
For millions of years, species have adapted to their environments
or perished. Adaptation comes instinctively and genetically. Yet
the techno-structure on which weve come to depend has evolved
so fast that its like a powerful but gangly adolescent whose
defenses are inept.
Weve seen how governments, the insurance industry and disaster
agencies have spent billions studying climate change, earthquakes,
and volcanoes, only to reach a sobering conclusion: our systems
are vulnerable to big natural attacks.
In some ways, such disasters are worse than nuclear enemies, because
they dont negotiate. There is no Mutually Assured Destruction
to deter one party from attacking another. Asteroids for example
are indifferent to the size of our intellect, missile count, or
Furthermore, rich and poor are in this together. None of the personal
wealth today is sufficient to protect someone against big natural
catastrophes and subsequent societal disintegration. The Hamptons
and West Palm Beach stand square in the path of an Atlantic tsunami
for example. Malibu, Santa Barbara, and Monterey on the West Coast
are exposed to similar risks from the Pacific. Therefore, wealthy
communities are just as exposed.
So how do we cope?
In Hawaii, they learned a bitter lesson from giant tsunamis that
occasionally rip through coastal cities: we cant yet affordably
build seaside dwellings to withstand hits from such waves. So instead,
they began designing the
lower floors of buildings to accommodate the waves, rather than
resist them. This also works with tidal surges from storms.
Many buildings have been constructed with flow-though ground floors.
When moderately high waves have torn through, upper floors were
left intact. Cars in the parking lot dont do so well, but
at least the occupants of the building
are left alive.
This is the difference between Resistance and Resilience. One method
tries to stand up against the threat, while the other opens the
door to let it pass through unhindered, thereby saving the larger
These excerpts taken from Our Molecular Future
- Reproduction with written permission only