Thursday, March 03, 2005

"We are the Hollow Men"--T.S. Eliot

Philalethes directs me to this column by Karen Armstrong, and it strikes me as interesting for reason other than the explanation of the "bouphonia." Ms. Armstrong frames her discussion around the tsunami, in the course of which she offers this bit of conventional wisdom:

A revelation is inspiring, but it can also fill people with dread because it forces them to face up to unwelcome truths. The tsunami has been a dark revelation, showing that despite our technology, we are still utterly helpless in the face of natural catastrophe.
Thus ayeth conventional wisdom. The only problem is, it is neither true, nor correct, nor wise. But it is certainly conventional.

Are we indeed "still utterly helpless in the face of natual catastrophe"? Well, depends on what you mean by "utterly helpless," as well as what you mean by "despite our technology." NPR ran a story recently about scientists examining the aftermath of the tsunami, and they had some interesting conclusions. The one that stuck with me, was that technology actually caused much of the disaster that was suffered because of the tidal wave.

Now, this is a delicate subject, and by no means do I mean that all deaths and devastation from the earthquake and tidal waves could have been avoided, or that we aren't sometimes entirely helpless in the face of "acts of God," as the law names them. But the scientists found that the natural barrier between tsunamis and shorelines, the coral reefs, were badly damaged around Sri Lanka. But not damaged by the tidal action; that did almost nothing to the coral. No, it was pollution, and trash, and industrial waste, that damaged the coral reef long before the wave struck, and large, heavy, man-made objects that broke pieces of the reef, when hurled against it in the wave. Had those reefs been healthy and untouched by human actions, specifically by the results of technology, they might have mitigated the tsunami considerably.

It was also human technology that allowed hotels to be built on shorelines; hotels which were obliterated by the tsunami, adding to the damage and the death toll, and probably to the trash bouncing around in the coral reefs. If not for our technology, in other words, and if shorelines were left in a more natural condition, and coral reefs allowed to thrive, rather than struggle to survive in polluted waters, the damage from the tsunami might have been considerably less.

This doesn't mean, of course, no damage would have been done. And certainly many a "non-technological" village was washed away by the wave; certainly whenever such things happen, it will affect people and fish and wildlife, and disrupt ecosystems as well as economic systems. But the fact is, the ecosystems cope with such "disasters" quite well. It is the human, technological systems, that are damaged almost beyond recovery. So, is this an anti-technology diatribe? Far from it. But much of the harm done by the abuse of the Enlightenment philosophy has been the hubris done in it's name. Imagining reason to make us as gods, we dethrone deity and replace it with technology. And when even technology will not save us, rather than dethrone technology as well, we proclaim it as limited as we are. Which, to be sure, it is. The question then is: why do we continue to rely on it? Not for what it does provide; but why do we expect it to do what is does not provide? The Hebrews banned the worship of idols, not because their God was so jealous, but because the idols were so useless:

Pagan idols are silver and gold
crafted by human hands.
Their mouths cannot speak,
their eyes do not see.

Their ears hear nothing,
their nostrils do not breathe.
Their makers who rely on them
become like those hollow images. Psalm 135:15-18
Does our reliance on them, on the work of our hands, even when it cannot save us, rather than our reliance (at least) on creation, make us the hollow men?
Do not invite death by the error of your life, or bring on destruction by the works of your hands; because God did not make death and does not delight in the death of the living. For God created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them,and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal. Wisdom 1: 12-15

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