Monday, April 27, 2015

Blinded By the Obvious

I was in a 6th floor hotel room on Grace Bay in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Island on Tuesday, January 12, 2010 when I noticed the floor shaking under my feet.  Colleen was napping on the bed and, as I was watching, it slid on the floor.  “What was that?,” she asked as she roused from her post-sun nap.  “Just a little earthquake,” I responded.  About 191 miles away from our room, a quarter of a million people had just lost their lives and over a million lost their livelihoods.  At dinner, oblivious to the epicenter, we saw the news of the tragedy that had struck Port-au-Prince.  In the five years since the earthquake, cholera has impacted the lives of at least 100,000 people and has led to nearly 10,000 preventable deaths.  And, after 5 years, nearly one third of the cholera treatment centers have been closed due to lack of funding according to the latest UN statistics.  About five years earlier, the Indian Ocean had heaved off the coast of Sumatra killing another quarter million people in what was thought to be the 3rd most powerful earthquake in modern recorded history (trailing the 1960 Valdivia Chile 9.5 and 1964 Prince William Sound Alaska 9.3).

This weekend, Katmandu experienced the latest mass-casualty earthquake with the death toll still mounting as I write.  It’s another springtime of death 5 years later.  It’s another moment of desperation as families seek to find their loved ones in the midst of centuries-old rubble and informally constructed brick and stone homes.  And it’s another moment when the instant response from everyone from Save The Children to the UN is to send money to jump-start relief efforts less than two months before the arrival of the monsoons… and cholera.

Two years ago, Santosh Gyawali, Senior Disaster Specialist for USAID Nepal wrote an article for Disaster Risk Reduction entitled “Implementing Building Codes to Save Lives.”  In his article he stated that, “a large earthquake would result in at least 100,000 deaths, 300,000 injuries, and 1.6 million displaced in the capital city alone.”  According to the study performed by Geohazard International, the majority of risk to humans in the Kathmandu Valley was not from mudslides and natural hazards but rather from “poorly constructed buildings not built to seismic codes.”  And while the last big earthquake to topple much of Kathmandu was in 1934, the population explosion that has happened since then led experts to warn of the impending loss of life and property.  In a July 28, 2014 article in Cosmos entitled “Kathmandu’s earthquake nightmare,” Kate Ravilious carefully laid out the anatomy of what happened on Saturday – a year before Saturday!

While we marvel at the nighttime lightning images from Chile’s Calbuco volcano and the emergence of islands in the Pacific – including one I saw rising from the sea in Tonga after watching a mini-tsunami in the hotel swimming pool! – we seem to be collectively missing a number of critical points as humanity despite the earth’s generous and frequent reminders to PAY ATTENTION!  While sociopaths in Washington, Brussels, Jerusalem, Moscow, Tehran, Kiev, Vienna and, Beijing play out their Freudian dysfunction jeopardizing the lives of billions, the earth is reminding us that it’s one active mother (fill in the expletive if you so desire!).  And if we’re listening to its rumblings, crashings, and torrents, we may be ignoring something far more important than our post-traumatic sympathy for people we’ve cared nothing about before this Saturday… this time! 

Kathmandu and its residents don’t need our sympathy now.  They’ve needed our attention for at least the past 20 years during which time more people have been killed in political insurgency than the earth did on Saturday.  The Maoist United People’s Front, the Nepali Congress Party, the United Communist Party of Nepal, the police and the armed forces have variously harmed and unified this poverty-ridden nation.  On April 24, 2006, then King Gyanendra laid the groundwork for the Constituent Assembly which governs the country today.  No breathtaking coverage from CNN and BBC when tortures and killings claimed 13,000 lives because We The People don’t care about the root causes of poverty and extremism around the world!  No calls for humanity to find all the other Nepals and Haitis before they become victims of “natural disasters”.  But most troubling is the fact that the disaster IS NOT NATURE!  It’s human callousness that fails to realize that a world built valuing Well-Being does not die at the hands of nature.  

And this is not some sort of na├»ve illusion.  My dear friends in Papua New Guinea live WITH volcanoes and earthquakes – many of which are more violent and powerful than the ones grabbing the headlines – and they’ve lived with nature for 40,000 years!  Stone walls in Saksaywaman outside of Cusco Peru sit atop highly seismic convergences and, based on their interlocking engineering, have stood for an indeterminate period of time.  And my team at M•CAM, working together with our visionary partner Krishna Gurung, President and Founder of the Kevin Rohan Memorial Eco Foundation, designed buildings using bottles (similar to the work we did in Mongolia to build greenhouses) in Kathmandu which did not fall when the earth shook! 

The earthquake is another wake-up call for us to realize that earthquakes and volcanoes don’t kill anywhere near the number of people that our careless neglect and predilection to violence does.  And while putting up emergency shelter, water and sanitation is an immediate need in this moment, it’s past time that we wake up and realize that focusing on economic, social, and trade justice pre-empts our pathetic impulse to act sympathetic after our indifference is evidenced by earth and war.  Among the many things that this earthquake did for me was to solidify my deeply held conviction that I’m no longer capable of engaging those who debate the existential merits of the ephemeral “meaning” in life if they don’t stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are actually working to live.  And, at the risk of heresy, it’s time for someone to update the New Testament timeless debate about “faith” and “works” which has received more attention than the citizens of Nepal.  In James 2:14-26, the following is written:

14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?   21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

25 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

There’s no question that the wisdom that is captured in the 16th verse above is the only prophetic voice we should listen to at the moment.  If we see destitution, we have a DUTY to ACT!  And until we see none without, we’ve always got something to DO!


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Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave