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13 January 2010
Earthquakes as cultural artifact

We generally think of earthquakes as acts of God, or of nature, but in reality they are profoundly cultural disasters. “In earthquakes,” Rebecca Solnit writes, “trees fall, rarely, the earth fissures in the great ones, but barring tsunamis, the natural world survives well.” The human world, of buildings and cities and roads and communities, fares far worse. Our own shelters turn against us, proving unreliable at best and often deadly. Earthquakes, Solnit argues, lay bare human frailty and folly—unenforced or absent building codes, the ravages of long-term poverty made doubly unbearable in crisis—but the aftermath also provides glimpses of human strength, courage, ingenuity, grace, and love.

Quite often this is exhibited most by the victims of disaster themselves—the majority of those rescued from the rubble this week in Haiti will be pulled out not by internationally-equipped rescue teams but by their own neighbors, working with minimal tools in the urgent first hours after the collapse. Preexisting organizations and institutions will help or hinder things (cultural elites often panic and implement damaging policies; in general bureaucracies are not good at the improvisation that disasters demand), but in the days to come a changed social order, with new possibilities and new pitfalls, will emerge and evolve in the rubble of Port-au-Prince. Some cities that undergo disasters eventually return to their former selves; for others, disaster nurtures lasting change.

This morning my thoughts and prayers are with Haiti, for the urgent and immediate needs of those suffering and mourning, for the rescues underway, for the improvisers, for the powerful made powerless, and the powerless empowered by crisis—and for the longer-term opportunities for sustained cultural creativity and real change afforded by a world turned upside down.

What do Earthquakes make of the world? What can we—especially at a distance—make of earthquakes?

—Nate Barksdale

Contribute to Haiti earthquake relief: World Vision, text “HAITI” to 90999 to donate $10 to Red Cross relief efforts.
Support organizations working for long-term change in Haiti: Partners in Health, Beyond Borders

1. What do earthquakes assume about the way the world is?

While we know as Christians that we are living in the fallen world, and earthquakes are just one example of the consequences of that, we do need to remember that we are to be a good steward of the earth, and in that light earthquakes give us more glimpse of what needs to be done in order to avoid the losses of human life and their livelihood.We as Christians can work together with the government and other institutions to make the good out of of disasters or earthquakes.

—Andy Panjaitan
2. What do earthquakes assume about the way the world should be?
3. What do earthquakes make possible?

Sometimes, strangely enough, peace between enemies.  Greek aid to earthquake victims in Turkey, and then Turkish aid to earthquake victims in Greece put a damper on decades (centuries really) of hostility.  Sometimes we find good along with the bad in our darkest hours.

4. What do earthquakes make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?
5. What new culture is created in response?