Shifting Our Notions of Nature: Musings on Natural and Manmade Disasters

03/19/2011 11:16 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

By Carol Smaldino, CSW

In the wake of the shattering disasters of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear melt downs in Japan, news reports of the devastation are haunting. During a recent flight to Sacramento to visit my son, there were warnings about tsunami waves and nuclear fallout hitting the northern California and Oregon coasts; places I expected to be.

During the last half hour of the flight, a fellow passenger who is a junior Geology major at UC Davis provided me a spontaneous geology lesson. Given my love of nature, I have been curious about geology from afar. The student kindled a new interest for me about earthquakes when he told me that Point Reyes, my weekend destination, was directly on the San Andreas Fault. He gave me an elementary explanation of why earthquakes are part of life on earth and need to happen.

Like many, I experience nature as something put there for our enjoyment and, often enough, our ownership. In times like these, it's humbling to perceive the fierceness and rhythms of nature. However, when I allow myself to ponder its phenomenal powers as detached from human permission, I experience a different kind of awe. No doubt many who live on or close to fault lines exist with the gnawing knowledge that earthquakes will happen.

I wonder...if the rest of us were faced with the constant reality that the plates are moving beneath our feet, would that lessen our urgency to own an dominate pieces of the planet and peoples as well?

Yesterday, I experienced another sense of awe over nature when my son and I went to watch the elephant seals on the beach. As the fog lifted, they were close enough for us to photograph without a special camera lens. The beach was filled with mother seals just laying there, apparently exhausted from having given birth and their long time of not eating. We watched the babies as they romped in the water in spontaneous play groups. Soon they will venture into the great Pacific. Who knows how they know where to go and when and with whom. I thought, here is another side of nature, as wondrous as earthquakes and tsunamis, just more benign. It is yet the still mysterious life cycle of another species sharing this small planet of ours.

This juxtaposition of nature as the manufacturer of both devastation and harmony provokes a double edged humility if you will; we are humbled by its power beyond our control, and we have an obligation to get to know its exigencies. We must gain a sense of appreciation for how vulnerable we all are in the face of its powers.

As someone who often writes about our human climate, the events in Japan also brings to mind our interdependency both in the immediate aftermath of tragedy in the everyday times that follow when vulnerability stays. The West, we know, has tended to use power and domination as staples of ownership and of wealth, perhaps to achieve a sense of grandeur that seems immortal. Unlike the seals whose have the luxury of a life cycle that is pre-determined, how we use or misuse the resources of both nature and of our own capabilities can, to some degree, be studied and even changed.

The last decade has exhausted many of us with a steady stream of tragic headlines of both manmade wars and terror and nature's wrath. There is way too much arrogance that presupposes that a single empire is enough. There is a prevailing attitude among, not only leadership, but in our neighborhoods and town halls that negates the importance of collaboration. I experience this in my own mental health profession. No one is immune. Too many of us have the expectation that people in their own power hunger only want to hear echoes -- that is until the next breakdown occurs in our cultural fads.

Yet, if we find the strength to step back and take the chance to study some of the destructive trends we have seen in the human repertoire, we might be surprised to find the more constructive tendencies towards attachment and cooperation. Although human behavior, from a nonreligious point of view, does not have to wind up in an Armageddon, we have yet to expend all the energy we might to study either the constructive or destructive potential of us as individuals and as members of societies. In recent years I have become more aware of my own need and wish to play, to be social and share in ideas and in invention.

Naturally, I feel terrible about the earthquake in Japan, something that was, of course, unavoidable. I do, however think we need collaboration to prevent disasters that we humans cause, such as nuclear accidents because we built power plants on fault lines.

We all see disasters in so many parts of the world as terribly sad. For me, the saddest of all are the genocides and wars waiting to happen if we do not intervene. Even here at home, we are reducing hope in our children for higher education and freedom of choice in life goals. Our schools are amputating curiosity from their curricula, and so many of them are being closed rather than being fixed. What disasters loom because of these non-collaborative policies?

We are not connecting our manmade disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan with our budget deficits to our big shots like Dick Cheney who walking this earth with a smugness that eludes responsibility of any kind. Right here at home, we constantly war with our neighbors and wrestle with voices of competition and comparison that ultimately bully us as we do others.

I conclude with these notions, not to minimize what happened in Japan and to the Japanese people, rather to ask us all to consider--a word we don't always use--how much we need to acknowledge our obligations to nature and to each other, and our vulnerability to both as well.