How badly shaken world has stirred us into action

Earthquakes in Human History
March 11, 2005

The devastation caused by the massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami on December 26, 2004 provoked discussions in the media that went far beyond the usual concerns of scientific explanations and humanitarian recovery. On one hand, there was serious consideration of what the implications of such a colossal disaster could be for fundamentalist theology. On the other hand, speculations continue as to whether this dramatic event might finally wake up the world's wealthier nations to their social responsibilities to the rest of the planet. If this should occur, then in the long run the Sumatran earthquake might have at least one positive effect.

It would not be the first instance of the cloud of destruction caused by an earthquake turning out to have a silver lining. In 1999, the devastating earthquake that hit Izmit in northwest Turkey was followed not long after by another earthquake on the outskirts of Athens.

Greece and Turkey, traditional enemies, found themselves drawn together by common suffering. The rapprochement gave rise to the phrase "earthquake diplomacy".

It is timely, therefore, to have a book that treats earthquakes principally as social agents rather than as geological phenomena, and this is the aim of Earthquakes in Human History . The authors' objective is to consider earthquakes not just as short-lived phenomena, but as the initiators of effects on human society that may last for years or even decades.

Unfortunately, although the authors' aim is laudable, three problems afflict this book. The first is organisational. It might have been wise to arrange the structure around the various themes that present themselves - economic and political effects in the short and long term, impact on philosophy and art and so on. Instead, the authors present their main material in nine chapters, each on a single earthquake or earthquake region. So earthquake diplomacy is missed out because Izmit is not one of the chosen earthquakes.

This has a knock-on effect, especially in the earlier chapters. One chapter has the argument that the eventual collapse of ancient Sparta was due to the fact that its small population base could not recover from the losses sustained from an obscure earthquake in about 464BC. However, having stated this idea, there is not much more to be said. Therefore, to fill a whole chapter on it the authors are obliged to pad out the text with gobbets of geography, history, geology, literature and travelogue that have only the slenderest relevance to the point at issue. At least in the later chapters - for example, that on the political repercussions of the 1972 Managua earthquake - the authors have some good material to impart, although they still tend to fill out the text with asides.

This brings me to the third problem, which is that, frankly, the writing is dull. Not in the sense of being too academic - this book is aimed at the general reader - but flat and uninspired. This is compounded by the abrupt way in which the authors leap from one thing to another: now a bit of history, now a bit of quotation, now a bit of geology. Some interesting material can be quarried from this volume, but the work as it stands is nothing like as interesting or useful as it could have been.

Roger Musson is principal seismologist, British Geological Survey.

Earthquakes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Seismic Disruptions

Author - Jelle de Boer and Donald Sanders
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 264
Price - £15.95
ISBN - 0 691 05070 8

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