November 21, 2013
For two weeks in November, the world watched a human story play out as Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Yolanda) ripped through some of the poorest regions of the Philippines with a never before recorded windspeed of over 300 km/h leaving a trail of devastation of incomprehensible proportions. This was nature at its worst … and humanity at its best.
The global outpouring of support has been enormous but it pales in comparison to how a local population of a developing country could pick itself up and support each other in recovering and providing relief internally. While there were short delays in aid and public services (most people rightly gave a priority to burying their dead and dealing with their own immediate needs) and some well-vocalised complainers (often coming from political opponents and conflicted emigrants in the USA) had microphones, it is astonishing to see how well people pulled together and how quickly the Filipinos moved from shock to resilience. Compared to the chaos after Katrina, there is a lot to be said about how well humanity was able to stand up to Mother Nature within the first two weeks (even “The Looting” – it was actually given a name – was comprehensible and, except for a few circumstances, did not show man at his worst).
What Haiyan did was remind us of something most civilisations before us had known first hand – that Mother Nature is not some cuddly panda or happy singing fish – it is one mean mother, that man needs to protect himself from. Since the time of Francis Bacon, the goal of science has been to protect humanity from the ravages and pestilence that nature continually throws at us (protect, extend and enhance human life). Because science has become so successful in achieving this goal, we tend to forget the threats and think that nature is a victim of our unsustainable actions. And from that, we have rewritten the objective of science. I don’t favour the PR manager’s definition of science (that science is all about discovery) and I detest the environmentalist’s definition (that science exists to manipulate and destroy nature). What we saw over the last two weeks was humanity taking a body blow from nature and trying to get back up. Science has been working not only to save lives and restore comforts in the Philippines, but is already looking at how to rebuild these towns so that the next onslaught from nature will not be so devastating – facing the challenges of nature is the spirit of humanity.
There are of course the opportunists who, from the comforts of their academic, political or religious offices, saw the crisis as a means to extend their arguments or positions. Politicians made sure their aid distributions were as well publicised as the inability of local governments to function in the first days. Fundamentalist Christians tried to argue that Haiyan was God’s way of punishing the Filipinos for the rise in homosexuality or birth control. Environmental fundamentalists like Greenpeace used the catastrophe to argue that the typhoon was nature’s way of punishing humanity for its excessive consumption and failure to listen to their campaigns (it seems Mother Nature is a member of Greenpeace!). Haiyan was no more a result of climate change (see the Economist article that reminds us that this type of weather event will not be more likely in a warmer world) than it was a result of the wrath of God … even though the expert propagandists have conditioned us to think with that reflex. So while we can admire the strength and resilience of the Filipino people in being able to recover, we should not forget the dark side of humanity – the opportunists.
The Risk-Monger has expressed his outrage at the crass opportunism of fundamentalists like Greenpeace on his Facebook page, where he has license to be less polite (curious that Greenpeace has since removed the blog but the broken link remains on the FB page image along with the angry reactions). It saddens him that in the years to come, Haiyan will be highlighted by the environmental cynics as another consequence of man’s disregard for the planet, rather than for what it really is: a remarkable story of the spirit of humanity.David Zaruk