On November 1, 1755, at half past nine in the morning, there was an earthquake in Lisbon. “Like corn in the wind” is how one survivor described the swaying skyline. Within 10 minutes, most of Lisbon’s buildings were pulled down around the people inside.
The centre of the city was split by a fissure five metres wide, displacing enough seawater to bring on a tsunami wave more than twice as tall. It slammed into the harbour just after 10 o’clock. In what little was left of Lisbon, overturned candles and lamps lit hundreds of small fires that swelled into a blaze so powerful, according to one historian, that it generated its own wind system. Almost biblically, the city burned for six days.
The disaster changed the West from the inside out. At the time, Portugal’s capital was the oldest city in Western Europe, the heart of a global empire, and with it went more than 200 paintings by masters like Titian and Rubens, some 90,000 books, and the original travel logs of Vasco de Gama. As Europe struggled to take stock, giants of the Enlightenment led the reckoning with essays, poems, and scientific theories.
Lately, as I’ve struggled to make sense of more recent devastations across the West, from the Caribbean to the Gulf Coast to Northern California, I have wondered what we might learn from that time of upheaval.
In a thinly veiled what-if, Adam Smith wrote:
Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake. And let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people. He would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life…And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility as if no such accident had happened.
Bleak, but all too familiar. Days (not even weeks) after Hurricane Irma ravaged Puerto Rico and the Florida Keys, one could have watched certain American news channels and gotten the impression that the biggest threat to U.S. homeland security was football players taking a knee during the national anthem. As the news cameras pan away from the wreckage in Dominica, San Juan, and Mexico City, the question I keep coming back to is, What do we value?
Or rather, whom? Natural disasters of one kind or another have a way of revealing the most devalued people—they’re the most vulnerable, least connected, and usually the hardest hit.
Older people, for instance. Footnoting the headlines about Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Irma are countless horror stories about nursing home residents left without power for medical devices or access to lifesaving medications; people who died unseen, in rooms that were flooded, airless, and steeped in human waste.
During a criminal investigation into one nursing home after Hurricane Irma, it was discovered that the “the center had asked the power company, Florida Power & Light, to restore electricity, but nursing homes were not considered as high a priority for restoration as other facilities.”
And as for President Donald Trump’s willful neglect of American citizens in Puerto Rico, The Economist suggests that U.S. presidents have historically given more disaster relief to citizens who vote for them. A less thoughtful, but no less plausible explanation from the Republican strategist Rick Wilson suggests that Trump regards Puerto Ricans as “Sea Mexicans.”
Systematic devaluation—of the elderly, the poor, the disabled, those branded ‘Other’ over skin color, faith, or language—isn’t unique to natural disasters in the United States. In the UK, it took a man-made catastrophe for me and my neighbours to realize that we had been bystanders to devaluation in our own backyard.
My thoughts returned to Grenfell Tower when I read Kant’s lament after Lisbon: “Unperturbed by the fate that is perhaps not [so] distant from us, we give way to pity rather than fear when we observe the devastation caused in neighbouring places by the destruction lying hidden beneath our feet.”
To Kant’s point about pity, evidently we value what we can see. When images of sunken homes and broken bodies make the front pages, human beings become miraculously generous. Ordinary people become heroes. After the damage is done, we welcome strangers into our homes. We donate money, food, diapers, and medicines (albeit medicines that are often near or past expiration).
But what about before the damage is done? We know that disaster preparedness is more cost-effective than future relief (by a factor of 15, according to some researchers), but you wouldn’t think it by the way we behave. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported that for every $100 spent on the top 20 humanitarian recipients between 2007-2012, just 62 cents were spent on preparedness.
Even when policymakers try to plan for tomorrow, they run into cultural norms that can’t be legislated. By admission of Canada’s Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, “the cultural shift expected from the [National Disaster Mitigation Strategy] is in direct opposition to the prevailing culture…where immediate gratification shapes many personal and public decisions.” There's a telling contrast between our “prevailing culture” and that of the Iroquois Confederacy, where decision makers were required to consider potential contingencies for the next seven generations.
Strange as it sounds, reading about the Lisbon earthquake leaves me hopeful that the recent spate of disasters could catalyze some enlightened action in our own time. After all, the ashes of Lisbon yielded much more than “melancholy reflections” and “fine philosophy.” The King of Portugal is credited as having ordered the first state-coordinated disaster response in human history, and his minister’s scientific investigation into possible causes gave rise to disciplines that were then unimaginable: seismology and geotechnical engineering.
One wonders what’s possible, say in seven generations, if we ask the right questions today.