Sunday, 13 March 2011

Bury the dead and heal the living

The massively destructive Japanese earthquake and tsunami may have left 10,000 dead, and has shaken down or washed away countless homes and livelihoods. A lot of practical help is already being organised - Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, the United States Singapore, Switzerland and Britain are all sending in  help with disaster relief and doubtless more countries will follow. NGOs from Project HOPE, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to MapAction are preparing to give whatever help they can and people around the world are donating to appeals, as they've done for countless natural catastrophes and humanitarian disasters over the years.

There are a few examples of the disaster triggering less helpful human responses, from crackpots claiming that the disaster validates their pet theories about a "supermoon"-triggering seismic disturbances (neatly demolished in Bad Astronomy, so let's hear no more about that, please), to Millenarian Christians claiming the disaster as proof that we're living in the End Times.

But on the whole, I think it's a good sign that the practical, humane, helpful responses coming from governments, international bodies, NGOs and ordinary people massively overshadow the wacky ideas of a few obsessive loonies on the fringes of society.

It gives me hope that the human race has made some progress since 1755, when a huge earthquake, followed by a tsunami devastated much of the city of Lisbon. As Voltaire famously noted, the in the age of the Inquisition people treated the wacky ideas of obsessive loonies with far more respect, resulting in a form of disaster relief that was the precise opposite practical and humane:

After the earthquake had destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking...

Voltaire's quotation, along with a painting of an auto-da-fé by the Spanish artist Pedro Berruguete is reproduced on the excellent Res Obscura blog.  An earler post reproduces pictures of Lisbon before the Great Earthquake.

In some ways, the Lisbon earthquake marked a turning point in attitudes to natural disaster. As superstitious people reacted to the disaster by burning the ungodly, others took more a more practical approach to the challenges of living in an earthquake zone. When the king asked the prime minister, Sebastião de Melo, Marquis de Pombal, what was to be done in the wake of the disaster, Pombal replied 'bury the dead and heal the living', which seems like a far more sensible response than setting fire to people. Pombal was put in charge of the subsequent rebuilding of the city and, again, managed to do a lot more good and a lot less harm than the contemporary ecclesiastical authorities:

The Pombaline buildings are among the earliest seismically protected constructions in Europe. Small wooden models were built for testing, and earthquakes were simulated by marching troops around them. Lisbon's "new" downtown, known today as the Pombaline Downtown (Baixa Pombalina), is one of the city's famed attractions. Sections of other Portuguese cities, like the Vila Real de Santo António in Algarve, were also rebuilt along Pombaline principles.

From Wikipedia

In the face of nature's terrifying indifference to the fate of human beings, Pombal and the people under him chose to heal and rebuild. Two and a half centuries later, the Baixa Pombalina is the pride of Lisbon.

In contrast, the Portuguese Inquisition was abolished in 1821. The name of the Inquisition became so discredited that the church subsequently re-branded it not once, but twice, (it became "The Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office" in 1908, then the "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" in 1965). Despite the efforts of revisionist historians to rehabilitate the organisation, you'd no more catch the present Pope referring to himself as the 'former head of the Inquisition' than you'd find Fred Goodwin wanting to be known as an 'ex-banker.'

The fact that most sane peoples' reaction to natural disasters now owes more to Pombal than to the inquisitors makes the future seem just that little bit brighter.