A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Friday, January 07, 2005

A touch of Friday solipsism.....

Somebody asked me the other day about my interests in life when I'm not fighting ecohype and for sound science in the media. As it is a Friday, I thought I might oblige by providing a quick answer for any who might care to know.

Outside science, my passions are classical music, especially early music, and master works on paper (i.e., master drawings and prints). For many years, I was very lucky to be able to conduct a wonderful ensemble, called Pifaresca, of highly-talented young musicians who specialised in baroque and renaissance recorders, crumhorns and cornamusen, racketts, shawms, and the renaissance harp. It was a real joy, but took up an immense amount of time - we presented summer concerts in churches and at Heritage/National Trust properties, like Knole. Sadly, I had to give this up because of pressures of work.

I have written and published quite a lot of music, mostly for children, including The Peter Rabbit Recorder Book (Frederick Warne & Penguin, USA, 1984), The Pooh Recorder Book (Methuen, 1985), The Wind in the Willows Recorder Book (Methuen, 1987) and the The Brambly Hedge Music Book (Collins, 1991). I have also dabbled in writing orchestral scores, mainly bad, but including what I hope is a creditable 'Clarinet Concerto in C', which has, amazingly, been successfully performed. When I can afford to treat myself to the new all-dancing 'Sibelius', I'll put it on the web!

I likewise spend a lot of time learning about master prints and drawings. Indeed, I have an article just out in the latest Issue of Country Illustrated Magazine (Anniversary Issue, 2005, pp. 110-113) on 'Master prints of the rural scene'. I'm that odd bod who, on visiting a major exhibition, turns immediately to the prints and drawings rather than to the paintings. I write a general monthly column for Country Illustrated, mainly on rural matters, but, I hope, in the future, on art too.

In addition, I have long-term academic connections with Thailand (dreadfully sad at the moment) and I am currently Chair of the rather splendid Anglo-Thai Society, which takes up an increasing amount of my time. If you are interested in Thai culture, life, and history, I very much encourage you to join. We have two delightful annual receptions, a summer one in The House of Lords, a winter one at The Oriental Club in London. My latest book, with Dr. Santanee Phasuk, is actually on Thailand: Royal Siamese Maps. War and Trade in Nineteenth Century Thailand (Bangkok: River Books, 2004).

Finally, but most importantly of all, I am very grateful to have a marvellous family (my wife is an historian and biographer), and it is now all focus on our first grandson, Henry, who is better, and much more fun, than any hobby.

Enough solipsism, Ed! But, at least, I hope you can see that I'm not just an obsessive about ecohype!

Philip, in need of some coffee [tragically ("Shhh! Don't tell Norm!"), I also support the 'Latics - Oldham Athletic!]
Tsunami lessons.....

May I recommend a careful read of this thoughtful piece from Thomas R. DeGregori : 'Tsunami: tragedy as a teacher' (American Council on Science and Health, January 5):

"But no amount of romantic 'living in harmony with Nature' would have provided protection to the victims of this tsunami. Contrary to popular opinion, science, technology, and modern life in general provide an enormous amount of protection from the worst hazards of nature, protection that we too often take for granted....."

"Economic development is the best defense against death and natural disasters. After every major tragedy, those societies that can afford it institute major changes, from funding more research on prevention to improving building standards for protection against fire or collapse....."


Thursday, January 06, 2005

The essential scientific and political links in any Tsunami Early Warning System.....

It is good news that world leaders have now pledged themselves to help to set up a Tsunami Early Warning System for the Indian Ocean Region like that in the Pacific Ocean, which has been up-and-running since 1965: 'Summit approves tsunami warning' (BBC World News, January 6): "World leaders have pledged to set up an Indian Ocean early warning system which could save lives in the event of a repeat of December's tsunami."

Here is a brief analysis of what is required, highlighting the links in the chain that may prove difficult to achieve. The science is the easy bit - the political will and local planning within each state are what will really count. Potential weak links in the chain are indicated by italic bold:

(a) A system of pressure sensors on the ocean bed;

(b) These send signals about the passing tsunami swell to surface buoys;

(c) These, in turn, send signals to satellites which feed the information into computers in each country that can model dynamically the progress of the wave - its strength, speed, and direction;

(d) Serious potential weak link: there must be 24-hour coverage of the computer record and the information must be in the hands of officials/politicians with enough political authority to be able to issue an immediate warning to the relevant coastal areas. This is alleged to have been a problem in Thailand with the December tsunami. Warnings must take precedence over the commercial interests of any tourist industry;

(e) Serious potential weak link: all countries surrounding the Indian Ocean must participate if the system is going to work effectively. In this respect, secretive states like Burma (Myanmar) and politically-difficult areas like the north of Sri Lanka and Aceh province in Sumatra thus pose limitations;

(f) Potential weak link: each country must have a simple and straightforward system of communicating the warning as quickly as possible to all coastal authorities and to hotels. Unfortunately, many areas in the Indian Ocean are remote (e.g. the Andaman Islands), or heavily rural and scattered (India,) or very poor. They often lack the necessary local infrastructure;

(g) Potential weak link: local authorities and hotels must have tried-and-tested emergency plans for speedy evacuation of people from the coast to higher ground. Tsunami drills will be vital, just like fire drills;

(h) Potential weak link: local people and hotel managers will need education in what to do. They will also need education about the characteristics of tsunami. For example, if they witness the violent retreat of the sea and the sudden exposure of coral and sea bed, they must move people away from the coast as swiftly as possible;

(i) Potential weak link: well-maintained tsunami warning signs, with clear comments on immediate action, must be posted all round the coasts of the Indian Ocean;

(j) Serious potential weak link: the system must be rigorously maintained even after years of no tsunami damage.

Philip, off to broadcast.
May they rot in hell.....

The Infernal Times, Thorsday

Motto: 'Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni'

Our Red Top Headline Today: 'Virgil shows Dante new lost souls in the Circles of Hell'

We report that Satan has added the following to the Circles of Hell (see 'A Map of Dante's Hell'):

Above and in Upper Hell, for sins conditioned by appetite:

In the Vestibules of the Pusillanimous:

Those who seek to exploit earthquake, tsunami, fire and flood for their own political ends and agendas.

In Money-grubbery:

Those who seek to exploit human tragedy by cheap money-grubbery, to con kind generosity by e-mail, letter or telephone scam.

In Lower Hell, for sins conditioned by malice:

In the Chasms of Fraud, Circle 8:

Those who pledge to give for the aid of disaster victims, but who never honour their pledge;

Those who mis-use, or appropriate, monies and services freely given for the aid of disaster victims;

Those who send hoax e-mails to the relatives of possible disaster victims;

Those who mis-use futurology to terrify people.

In the Pit of Cocytus, Circle 9, for the vilest of all treachery:

Those who seek to procure orphaned children for evil intent - "And whoever shall occasion the fall of one of these little ones..., he would be better off if, with a millstone round his neck, he were lying at the bottom of the sea." (The Gospel According to St. Mark, Chapter 9, 42).

Quote of the Day

"I saw people plunged in excrement
Which seemed as if it had flowed out of a cesspit."
(The Inferno, Canto XVIII, 113-114)

[Translations from Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy taken from C. H. Sisson for Oxford World Classics, 1980]

Here is a complete translation available online of the The Divine Comedy by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Everypoet.com).

See also this excellent blog by Norman Geras: 'A condition of emergency' (January 6).

Philip, wretching as the stones are turned over by the Indian Ocean disaster. Yet, there has also been such bravery and generosity - "And then we emerged to see the stars again."

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Life tragically outdoes Art.....

With Nature outdoing Art in the disaster stakes, the BBC has had to cancel its forthcoming supervolcano documentary-drama that was due to air at the end of January 2005: 'BBC postpones disaster docu-drama' (BBC Online Entertainment News, January 5):

"A £3m docu-drama about a devastating volcano due to be shown by the BBC at the end of January has been postponed in the wake of the tsunami disaster.

Supervolcano was based on events which could happen in the near future if the volcano underneath Yellowstone National Park in the US was to erupt.

The BBC said in light of the recent tragedies in Asia it would 'be inappropriate' to screen it."

And it all makes 'global warming' scare-mongering seem very small beer indeed:

"There is a real active supervolcano underneath Yellowstone National Park that last erupted 640,000 years ago.

Scientists believe that its cyclical nature means an eruption is long overdue and has the potential to kill 100,000 US citizens and lead to blizzards, climate change and famine."

Earth catastrophism inevitably outdoes gradualism, but, more especially, artificially-engendered 'virtual' disasters. Reality is bad enough without environmentalist fantasies.

The biggest volcanic eruption in recorded history.....

To underline the geological power of the mighty subduction zone on which Indonesia rests, I thought it would be useful to recall the fact that the biggest volcanic eruption in recorded history was also an Indonesian event, namely the 1815 eruption of Tambora. Here are some scientific accounts of this truly cataclysmic occurrence:-

I. The Eruption of Tambora 1815

(a) Adapted from: the Smithsonian Institution Global Volcanism Website, 2002:

"The massive Tambora stratovolcano forms the entire 60-kilometer-wide Sanggar Peninsula on northern Sumbawa Island [Indonesia]. Tambora grew to about 4000 metres elevation before forming a caldera more than 43,000 years ago. Late-Pleistocene lava flows largely filled the early caldera, after which activity changed to dominantly explosive eruptions during the early Holocene. Tambora was the source of history's largest explosive eruption, in April 1815. Pyroclastic flows reached the sea on all sides of the peninsula and heavy tephra fall devastated croplands, causing an estimated 60,000 fatalities [the same as the 1755 Lisbon earthquake death toll in Portugal - see below]. The eruption of more than 150 cubic kilometers of tephra formed a 6-kilometer-wide, 1250-metre-deep caldera and produced global climatic effects. Minor lava domes and flows have been extruded on the caldera floor during the 19th and 20th centuries."

(b) Adapted from: Newhall & Dzurisin 1988. 'Historical Unrest at Large Calderas of the World.' (U. S. Geological Survey Bulletin No. 1855):

"Tambora is on Sumbawa Island along the east Sunda Arc. It lies some 300 kilometers behind the Sunda Trench, but the subduction zone in that area has a shallow dip and is less than 200 kilometers deep beneath Tambora. Tambora is a large stratovolcano composed dominantly of nepheline-normative, leucite-bearing trachybasalt and trachyandesite. Before its eruption in 1815, Tambora might have been in repose for as much as 5,000 years.

At least 6 months and probably about 3 years of increased steaming and small phreatic eruptions preceded the 1815 Tambora eruption, the largest in historical time. A moderately large explosive eruption occurred on 5 April 1815, from which ash fell in east Java and thunder-like sounds were heard up to 1,400 kilometers away. A still larger eruption occurred on 10-11 April, beginning as three columns of fire rising to a great height, and ultimately ejecting about 50 cubic kilometers of magma (dense rock equivalent). The eruption left a deep summit caldera where previously a much higher stratovolcano had stood. Earthquakes were felt as far away as Surabaya (500 kilometers), possibly reflecting the caldera collapse.

A small, postcaldera cone and lava flow, Doro Afi Toi, originated sometime between 1847 and 1913. A strong earthquake on 13 January 1909, with an epicentre near Tambora (8.5 degrees S, 117.4 degrees E), was presumably connected with Tambora. Might the earthquake have occurred during formation of Doro Afi Toi?"

II. 'The Year Without a Summer' 1816

(c) Adapted from: NASA's Earth Observing Project Science Webpage: Volcanoes and Global Climate Change, May 2000:

"Global cooling has often been linked with major volcanic eruptions. The year 1816 has been referred to as 'the year without a summer'. It was a time of significant weather-related disruptions in New England and in Western Europe with killing summer frosts in the United States and Canada. These strange phenomena were attributed to a major eruption of the Tambora volcano in 1815 in Indonesia. The volcano threw sulphur dioxide gas into the stratosphere, and the aerosol layer that formed led to brilliant sunsets seen around the world for several years." [It is said that artists' palettes were changed by this event.]

(d) Adapted from: Kious & Tilling 1996. This Dynamic Earth: the Story of Plate Tectonics (USGS General Interest Publication):

"The June 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo was global. Slightly cooler than usual temperatures recorded worldwide and the brilliant sunsets and sunrises have been attributed to this eruption that sent fine ash and gases high into the stratosphere, forming a large volcanic cloud that drifted around the world. The sulphur dioxide (SO2) in this cloud -- about 22 million tons -- combined with water to form droplets of sulphuric acid, blocking some of the sunlight from reaching the Earth and thereby cooling temperatures in some regions by as much as 0.5°C. An eruption the size of Mount Pinatubo could affect the weather for a few years.

A similar phenomenon occurred in April of 1815 with the cataclysmic eruption of the Tambora Volcano in Indonesia, the most powerful eruption in recorded history. Tambora's volcanic cloud lowered global temperatures by as much as 3°C. Even a year after the eruption, most of the northern hemisphere experienced sharply cooler temperatures during the summer months. In parts of Europe and in North America, 1816 was known as 'the year without a summer."

For more on Indonesia's restless world, visit: USGS 'Indonesian Volcanoes and Volcanics', 2004.


Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Voltaire on an earthquake and its tsunami.....

In 1756, F. M. A. de Voltaire wrote his famous work entitled Poèmes sur le Dèsastre de Lisbonne et sur La Loi Naturelle avec des Prefaces, des Notes etc. (Genève, n.d. [1756]). In the light of our current calamity in the Indian Ocean, I thought it would be of value to reprint a translation of this masterpiece taken from Selected Works of Voltaire (edited and translated by Joseph McCabe, Watts and Co., London, 1911. See for further details: 'Voltaire: Poem on the Lisbon Disaster (1756)', University of Essex).

The earthquake in question began around 9:30 am on November 1st, 1755, and its epicentre was in the Atlantic Ocean, some 200 km W.S.W. of the Cape St. Vincent [for a full account, see this excellent essay: 'Historical depictions of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake' (NISEE, University of California at Berkeley, on which I have based these general notes)]. The worst damage occurred in the south-west of Portugal and at Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, which, at the time, was one of the largest and most beautiful cities in Europe, with a population estimated at around 275,000. A truly devastating fire following the earthquake ravaged much of the town

But, as in the Indian Ocean, tsunami also caused massive devastation along the coasts of Portugal, southwest Spain, and western Morocco. And, likewise paralleling the Indian ocean event, it is believed that the Lisbon earthquake would have measured around 9 on the Richter scale.

Immediately after the earthquake, many inhabitants of Lisbon looked for safety on the sea by boarding ships that were moored on the river Tagus. Then, about 30 minutes after the shock, an enormous wave swamped the area near to the Bugie Tower on the mouth of the river. The district between Junqueria and Alcantara in the western part of the city was heavily damaged, with further destruction occurring upstream. The Cais de Pedra at Rerreiro do Paco and part of the nearby custom house were flattened. In all, a total of three waves struck, each dragging people and debris out to sea and leaving exposed wide stretches of the river bottom. In front of the Terreiro do Paco, the maximum height of the waves was estimated at 6 metres. Boats, severely overcrowded with people fleeing the city, capsized and sank. In the town Cascais, some 30 km to the west of Lisbon, the waves wrecked boats and, when the water withdrew, large stretches of the sea bottom were left uncovered. In coastal areas such as Peniche, situated about 80 km north of Lisbon, many people were killed by the tsunami. In Setubal, 30 km south of Lisbon, the water reached the first floor of buildings.

The destruction was severest in the Algarve, in southern Portugal, where the tsunami dismantled coastal fortresses and, in the lower levels, razed houses. In some places, the waves crested at more than 30 m. Almost all the coastal towns and villages of the Algarve were heavily battered, except Faro, which was protected by sandy banks. In Lagos, the waves reached the top of the city walls. Thus, for coastal regions, the destructive effects of the tsunami were far more disastrous than those of the initiating earthquake.

In southwestern Spain, the tsunami caused damage to Cadiz and Huelva, and the waves penetrated the Guadalquivir River, reaching right up to Seville. In Gibraltar, the sea rose suddenly by two metres. In Ceuta, the tsunami was strong, but in the Mediterranean Sea, it decreased rapidly. On the other hand, it caused great damage and casualties on the western coast of Morocco, from Tangier, where the waves reached the walled fortifications of the town, to Agadir, where the waters passed over the walls, killing many.

The tsunami reached, with less intensity, the coasts of France, Great Britain, Ireland, Belgium and Holland. In Madeira, and in the Azores, damage was extensive. The tsunami further crossed the Atlantic Ocean, reaching the Antilles by the afternoon. Reports from Antigua, Martinique, and Barbados record that the sea first rose more than a metre, followed by large waves.

The death toll in Portugal alone from the November 1st, 1755, earthquake is estimated to have been 60,000.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, and once more just like the Indian Ocean earthquake and its resultant tsunami, this catastrophic event challenged both traditional faith and enlightenment beliefs in an ordered and predictable universe. In the 'Preface' to his work, Voltaire wrote with his trade-mark irony:

"The author of the poem on The Disaster of Lisbon is not an adversary of the illustrious Pope, whom he has always admired and loved: he thinks like him on practically all matters; but, pierced to the heart by the misfortunes of mankind, he wishes to attack the abuse that can be made of that ancient axiom ‘All is for the best’. He adopts in its place that sad and more ancient truth, recognised by all men, that ‘There is evil upon the earth’; he declares that the phrase ‘All is for the best’, taken in a strict sense and without hope of a future life, is merely an insult to the miseries of our existence."

Voltaire's poem generated a serious controversy with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, in a lengthy Reply to M. de Voltaire, explained Voltaire's pessimism as the product of the unnatural and unhealthy life of the pampered and privileged intellectual. By contrast, ask a humble craftsman or a Swiss peasant whether evil predominated over good in human life, as Voltaire suggested, and you would get a very different answer. I doubt it around the shores of the Indian Ocean today.

Here, then, is Voltaire's original poem, in translation [far less well-known, of course, than Candide - see 'Voltaire's Life and Works' (Encyclopedia.com)]:

'UNHAPPY mortals! Dark and mourning earth!
Affrighted gathering of human kind!
Eternal lingering of useless pain!
Come, ye philosophers, who cry, "All’s well,"
And contemplate this ruin of a world.
Behold these shreds and cinders of your race,
This child and mother heaped in common wreck,
These scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts—
A hundred thousand whom the earth devours,
Who, torn and bloody, palpitating yet,
Entombed beneath their hospitable roofs,
In racking torment end their stricken lives.
To those expiring murmurs of distress,
To that appalling spectacle of woe,
Will ye reply: "You do but illustrate
The Iron laws that chain the will of God"?
Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:
"God is avenged: the wage of sin is death"?
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.
Tranquil spectators of your brothers’ wreck,
Unmoved by this repellent dance of death,
Who calmly seek the reason of such storms,
Let them but lash your own security;
Your tears will mingle freely with the flood.

When earth its horrid jaws half open shows,
My plaint is innocent, my cries are just.
Surrounded by such cruelties of fate,
By rage of evil and by snares of death,
Fronting the fierceness of the elements,
Sharing our ills, indulge me my lament.
"Tis pride," ye say— "the pride of rebel heart,
To think we might fare better than we do."
Go, tell it to the Tagus’ stricken banks;
Search in the ruins of that bloody shock;
Ask of the dying in that house, of grief,
Whether ‘tis pride that calls on heaven for help
And pity for the sufferings of men.
"All’s well," ye say, "and all is necessary."
Think ye this universe had been the worse
Without this hellish gulf in Portugal?
Are ye so sure the great eternal cause,
That knows all things, and for itself creates,
Could not have placed us in this dreary clime
Without volcanoes seething ‘neath our feet?
Set you this limit to the power supreme?
Would you forbid it use its clemency?
Are not the means of the great artisan
Unlimited for shaping his designs?
The master I would not offend, yet wish
This gulf of fire and sulphur had outpoured
Its baleful flood amid the desert wastes.
God I respect, yet love the universe.
Not pride, alas, it is, but love of man,3
To mourn so terrible a stroke as this.
Would it console the sad inhabitants
Of these aflame and desolated shores
To say to them: "Lay down your lives in peace;
For the world’s good your homes are sacrificed;
Your ruined palaces shall others build,
For other peoples shall your walls arise;
The North grows rich on your unhappy loss;
Your ills are but a link In general law;
To God you are as those low creeping worms
That wait for you in your predestined tombs"?
What speech to hold to victims of such ruth!
Add not, such cruel outrage to their pain.
Nay, press not on my agitated heart
These iron and irrevocable laws,
This rigid chain of bodies, minds, and worlds.
Dreams of the bloodless thinker are such thoughts.
God holds the chain: is not himself enchained;
By indulgent choice is all arranged;
Implacable he’s not, but free and just.
Why suffer we, then, under one so just?
There is the knot your thinkers should undo.
Think ye to cure our ills denying them?
All peoples, trembling at the hand of God,
Have sought the source of evil in the world.
When the eternal law that all things moves
Doth hurl the rock by impact of the winds,
With lightning rends and fires the sturdy oak,
They have no feeling of the crashing blows;
But I, I live and feel, my wounded heart
Appeals for aid to him who fashioned it.
Children of that Almighty Power, we stretch
Our hands in grief towards our common sire.
The vessel, truly, is not heard to say:
"Why should I be so vile, so coarse, so frail?"
Nor speech nor thought is given unto it.
The urn that, from the potter’s forming hand,
Slips and is shattered has no living heart
That yearns for bliss and shrinks from misery.
"This misery," ye say, "Is others’ good."
Yes; from my mouldering body shall be born
A thousand worms, when death has closed my pain.
Fine consolation this in my distress!
Grim speculators on the woes of men,
Ye double, not assuage, my misery.
In you I mark the nerveless boast of pride
That hides its ill with pretext of content.
I am a puny part of the great whole.
Yes; but all animals condemned to live,
All sentient things, born by the same stern law,
Suffer like me, and like me also die.
The vulture fastens on his timid prey,
And stabs with bloody beak the quivering limbs:
All’s well, it seems, for it. But in a while
An eagle tears the vulture into shreds;
The eagle is transfixed by shaft of man;
The man, prone in the dust of battlefield,
Mingling his blood with dying fellow men,
Becomes in turn the food of ravenous birds.

Thus the whole world in every member groans:
All born for torment and for mutual death.
And o’er this ghastly chaos you would say
The ills of each make up the good of all!
What blessedness! And as, with quaking voice,
Mortal and pitiful, ye cry, "All’s well,"
The universe belies you, and your heart
Refutes a, hundred times your mind’s conceit.
All dead and living things are locked in strife.
Confess it freely -- evil stalks the land
Its secret principle unknown to us.
Can it be from the author of all good?
Are we condemned to weep by tyrant law
Of black Typhon or barbarous Ahriman?
These odious monsters, whom a trembling world
Made gods, my spirit utterly rejects.
But how conceive a God supremely good,
Who heaps his favours on the sons he loves
Yet scatters evil with as large a hand?
What eye can pierce the depth of his designs?
From that all-perfect Being came not ill:
And came it from no other, for he’s lord:
Yet it exists. O stern and numbing truth!

O wondrous mingling of diversities!

A God came down to lift our stricken race:
He visited the earth, and changed it not!
One sophist says he had not power to change;
"He had," another cries, "but willed it not:
In time he will, no doubt." And, while they prate
The hidden thunders, belched from undergound,
Fling wide the ruins of a hundred towns
Across the smiling face of Portugal.
God either smites the inborn guilt of man,
Or, arbitrary lord of space and time,
Devoid alike of pity and of wrath,
Pursues the cold designs he has conceived.
Or else this formless stuff, recalcitrant,
Bears in itself inalienable faults;
Or else God tries us, and this mortal life
Is but the passage to eternal spheres.
‘Tis transitory pain we suffer here,
And death its merciful deliverance.
Yet, when this dreadful passage has been,
Who will contend he has deserved the crown?
Whatever side we take we needs must groan;
Nature is dumb, in vain appeal to it,
The human race demans a word of God.

‘Tis his alone to illustrate his work,
Console the weary, and illume the wise.
Without him man, to doubt and error doomed,
Finds not a reed that he may lean upon.
From Leibniz learn we not by what unseen
Bonds, in this best of all imagined worlds,
Endless disorder, chaos of distress,
Must mix our little pleasures thus with pain:
Nor why the guilt1ess suffer all this woe
In common with the most abhorrent guilt.
‘Tis mockery to tell me all is well.
Like learned doctors, nothing do I know.
Plato has said that men did once have wings
And bodies proof against all mortal ill;
That pain and death were strangers to their world.
How have we fallen from that high estate!
Man crawls and dies: all is but born to die:
The world’s the empire of destructiveness.
This frail construction of quick nerves and bones
Cannot sustain the shock of elements;
This temporary blend of blood and dust
Was put together only to dissolve;
This prompt and vivid sentiment of nerve
Was made for pain, the minister of death:
Thus in my ear does nature’s message run.
Plato and Epicurus I reject,
And turn more hopefully to learned Bayle.
With even poised scale Bayle bids me doubt
He, wise enough and great to need no creed,
Has slain all system -- combats even himself:
Like that blind conqueror of Philistines,
He sinks beneath the ruin he has wrought.
What is the verdict of the vastest mind?
Silence: the book of fate is closed to us.
Man is a stranger to his own research;
He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes.
Tormented atoms in a bed of mud,
Devoured by death, a mockery of fate.
But thinking atoms, whose far-seeing eyes,
Guided by thought, have measured the faint stars,
Our being mingles with the infinite;
Ouselves we never see, or come to know.
This world, this theatre of pride and wrong,
Swarms with sick fools who talk of happiness.
With plaints and groans they follow up the quest,
To die reluctant, or be born again.
At fitful moments in our pain-racked life
The hand of pleasure wipes away our tears;
But pleasure passes like a fleeting shade,
And leaves a legacy of pain and loss.
The past for us is but a fond regret,
The present grim, unless the future’s clear.
If thought must end in darkness of the tomb,
All will be well one day — so runs our hope.
All now is well, is but an ideal dream.
The wise deceive me: God alone is right.
With lowly sighing, subject in my pain,
I do not fling myself ‘gainst Providence.
Once did I sing, in less lugubrious tone,
The sunny ways of pleasure’s genial rule;
The times have changed, and, taught by growing age,
And sharing of the frailty of mankind,
Seeking a light amid the deepening gloom,
I can but suffer, and will not repine.
A caliph once, when his last hour had come,
This prayer addressed to him he reverenced:
"To thee, sole and all-powerful king, I bear
What thou dost lack in thy immensity—
Evil and ignorance, distress and sin."
He might have added one thing further — hope.'

Now see: 'How can religious people explain something like this?' (The Guardian, December 28).


Monday, January 03, 2005

Tsunami 'theologies'.....

Having spent a most valuable morning as a panellist on a 'phone-in discussion for the excellent BBC Asian Network focusing on the complex 'theologies' of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, I appreciate the thoughtful analysis and comments of Melanie Phillips in her latest Daily Mail article: 'Religion in the face of catastrophe' (The Daily Mail, January 3):

"Indeed, despite the opportunistic and rather disgusting attempts by certain Green campaigners to use this catastrophe to ratchet up alarm about man-made global warming — for which, despite the general impression, no reliable scientific evidence exists — what the Asian earthquake tells us is that man cannot control the natural world.

In a grotesque parody of Biblical fundamentalists, Green campaigners blame mankind for natural catastrophes they predict in the future. But what this all-too-real earthquake shows us is the powerlessness of mankind in the face of the forces of nature.

It destroys the sentimentalised picture of nature conjured up by the Greens, that the natural world would be a kind, peaceful and productive place if only wicked mankind stopped mucking about with it. Well, now we have the terrible refutation of such hubristic ignorance and naivety — an explosion at the earth’s core equivalent to 9,500 Hiroshima bombs, which had absolutely nothing to do with man’s activities."

Melanie also, quite correctly, reminds us that, horrendous though the present loss of life is, within only the last 40 years there have been a number of other catastrophes with even more recorded fatalities:

"And yet, having said that, compassion can nevertheless be selective. For there have been other disasters with comparable or even greater loss of life which have elicited far less response. In 1970, a Bangladesh cyclone left 500,000 dead; in 1965, an Indian drought wiped out 1.5 million people; in 1976, an earthquake in China caused 242,800 fatalities."

Whatever our own belief system, such mighty events present everyone with an ultimate challenge, to make some sense, one way or another, of suffering, for which there can be no glib or simplistic answers, whether you are the Archbishop of Canterbury, an Imam, the Chief Rabbi, or Richard Dawkins.


Sunday, January 02, 2005

Bjorn is wrong (for once), the real answer from Burma (Myanmar), and 'failed' states.....

The answer to my question (below) about the real impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami on Burma (Myanmar) is starting to be made plain (with no thanks, of course, to the Burmese junta): '"Our government in Burma is lying when it says just a few people were killed"' (The Sunday Telegraph, January 2):

"While aid workers believe that Burma escaped the carnage that was visited on Indonesia, where about 100,000 people are feared to have lost their lives, they say the death toll is certain to be higher than Burmese officials have admitted. 'It is in the thousands,' estimated one foreign diplomat.

Burma is a closed society and the regime is hostile to outside influences. Journalists are banned and tight controls are placed on the movements of aid workers and diplomats. The climate of fear instilled by almost four decades of military dictatorship is such that any Burmese willing to help in exposing suffering and loss of life faces a long jail sentence.

Since the tsunami the military's grip has become even tighter. Conscript soldiers have been deployed on main roads leading out of the southern town of Kawthaung. They have orders to prevent foreign nationals from travelling more than two miles from the centre. The naval vessels are looking for boats that they do not recognise in order to prevent unauthorised missions landing along the ravaged coastline."

Quite despicable. Unquestionably, one of the major limitations to establishing any comprehensive tsunami early-warning system for the Indian Ocean will, of course, be such 'failed' states and provinces - Burma, Aceh, and northern Sri Lanka. These areas are already deeply problematic for the aid agencies. The whole issue of 'failed' states is very well addressed in today's The Observer (December 2) by Nick Cohen: 'The politics of disaster. Corrupt governments such as that in Burma are only adding to the suffering of their people.'

I am, however, absolutely convinced of the need for an Indian Ocean early-warning system and one which includes relatively simple local-response measures. On this, I am sad to say, I must, for once, disagree with my colleague, Dr. Bjorn Lomborg ('Remember, Asia’s old stealthy killers claim more victims than any catastrophe', The Sunday Times, December 2). While he is quite right to emphasise the significance of disease, a warning system would not be expensive to establish and, at the state level, it requires relatively unsophisticated defensive actions. Moreover, the system needs to be in place within two years at the latest. Geologists are, quite correctly in my opinion, warning us that mighty earthquakes of this type, along such subducting plate margins, tend to come in pairs a few years apart.

Unfortunately, the rogue states remain a serious problem.

Philip, busy broadcasting.

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