For anyone who may have wondered, last week’s tsunami proves beyond a doubt that humanity has yet to conquer the natural world. In fact, in his piece, “How Nature Changes History,” Donald G. McNeil, Jr. recalls several instances in which natural catastrophes have changed the course of history.

“Death and devastation have deflected the course of nations,” he reports. “If the past is any guide, the response to the shock of Dec. 26 will loom larger in history than the wave itself.”

Is this catastrophe the result of global warming? How much of global warming is due to human negligence? Although the immediate repercussions of this worldwide disaster have pushed these questions into the background, eventually they will be addressed.

Dr. Brian M. Fagan, an archaeologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, alludes to the potential implications of this disaster by recalling three instances in history in which civilization changed after similar watery catastrophes.

Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, contends that the potential for religious repercussions is as serious an issue as that of a looming environmental threat. He expects the present devastation will act as “a wacko magnet of enormous proportions with new cults founded” in the rural areas which were hit hardest. He recalls the 1883 eruption of the island of Krakatoa, which has been immortalized in the children’s book, The Twenty-One Balloons. “There was a sense that the old gods had failed [believers],” Mr. Saffo is cited as saying.

Saffo anticipates that a fundamentalist response to such a loss in faith might be severe. “The Indonesian government’s response ‘has to be swift, effective and free of corruption or it will be a gift to the fundamentalists,’ [Saffo] said. The American war on terror … might fare better by outspending Islamic charities in Indonesia than by ‘pouring money into the sand’ in Iraq.”

However nations worldwide choose to respond to the disaster, the interdependence of humanity and nature cannot be negated. Both thought as well as a diversity of response, reflected by the diversity of the nations who are responding in record numbers, may prove to be the most effective solution.

—Michaele Shapiro

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