Essays and articles

Forces of Nature, Wrath of God and the Many Stories People Create About Calamities

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It was a wet Christmas season we had this year and few days into 2015, another tropical depression brought unabated downpours in large parts of the country. Cool weather keeps you huddled in your blankets well into mid-morning though the threats of flooding are keeping people on their toes. Some parts of the South are already facing the perennial swelling of rivers and flooded communities. Whether due to the large volume of rainfall, denuded forest covers, poor drainage systems or a mix of these factors, floods can sweep homes, animals and trees in rural areas, and a sea of garbage and unimaginable waste in urban congested places. This is a picture of a Third World country in the grip of natural calamities. We are told later of stories where people triumph over such disasters through sheer willpower to survive and of the help that comes from others. One question that nags me is how do people react to such calamities. Exactly who do they blame for such misfortunes in their lives?

Forces of Nature or Wrath of God: The Fear Factors

For quite some time we were comfortable with the idea that typhoons and other natural calamities are part of our existence as forces of Nature. Communities learned to adapt to these chaotic events that oftentimes damage homes, animals, crops and even take lives. The idea of Disaster Risk Reduction was never heard of until recently. For a time the public was skeptic of what the national weather bureau forecasts, until it started using more advanced systems, its forecasts becoming more accurate and its language more friendly to the layman.

There are also  those who talk about Divine punishments and that such calamities are God’s way of reminding people to walk in the path of goodness. Such a view may not rest well with those whose world views are more secular or scientific, and for those who do not believe in such “religious nonsense.” The classic text or biblical narrative of the Great Flood that swept the lands in the time of the prophet Noah (Christian text, different name in Islamic text) tells us that calamities can be a way of God to cleanse His creation. In the same Christian text, it says that such times will not come again as mankind had been delivered by another means of Redemption. Which leaves us with the question that why a God who is believed to be All-loving would send such cataclysmic events to His own people as a punishment for their wrongdoing?

Other religions and world views offer a different take on human suffering and the way Nature speaks when it is desecrated.

In ancient cultures people believed in multiple gods that sends many forms of destruction to human societies. Hence to appease their wrath, people make a lot of offerings and create symbols to extol the god of water, harvest, fire, etc. These age-old fear of the unknown and uncontrollable forces found in Nature still manifests in the modern Filipino psyche despite the years of inculcation of Monotheism and Christian beliefs, or the advancement of science, Western education and mass media. Call it a complex personality and way of thinking that tends to rationalize events into good luck and bad luck, blessings or punishment, bad karma or good karma, etc.

Climate Change or Conspiracy Theory: Storms as Man-Made Calamities

Another view that is fast gaining popularity is climate change as a man-made phenomenon. It says that the rampant use of fossil fuels and emission of toxic gasses into the atmosphere damaged the ozone layer and hastened what was supposed to be inevitable warming of the planet. The increasing temperature of the seas, the rising sea level is the culprit why storms had become more frequent. So who’s to blame for our woes? Environmental activists and climate justice campaigners blame the large emitters of greenhouse gasses as culprits to why island countries (and archipelago like the Philippines) are suffering from these calamities. The lobbying has been taken to the UN and negotiations ongoing, although the recent one proved to be disheartening again.

Adaptation and DRR: We can Re-learn to Live with Nature

The six o’clock news showed  the extent of the damage wrought by Tropical Strom Jangmi (local name: typhoon Seniang) in the country. A number of communities in the Visayas and Mindanao were flooded and the death toll higher than what Storm Hagupit left behind. Authorities are saying that the factor of pre-emptive evacuation saved lives when the strong winds of Hagupit battered a large part of the Visayas. With this recent storm, we wondered why despite its lesser intensity, the damage was still extensive.

In other countries, floods and tsunamis are also realities faced by people. In fact the 1994 tsunami that swept Aceh in Indonesia and other areas near the Indian Ocean has just been remembered – the lost lives honored by their families and love ones. While people are reflecting on that painful past, heavy rains caused flooding in Malaysia, Thailand and some parts of Sri Lanka. So we are faced with the reality that natural calamities are bound to happen again and again. Thus, the only way to deal with forces of Nature is to adapt, prepare and mitigate their risks. Early warning systems and improved communication technologies are helping, so do better coordination between communities and their leaders.

Our ancestors have learned to live with Nature; science attempts and continues to unlock its mysteries. What keeps us from learning again how to honor the Earth and protect it from further destruction?