Headscarves and Hubris

The ground beneath our feet

According to Ayatollah Kazem Sedighi, “Many women who dress inappropriately . . . cause youths to go astray, taint their chastity and incite extramarital sex in society, which increases earthquakes.”

By “dressing inappropriately,” Sedighi meant “wearing tight coats and flimsy headscarves and layers of skillfully applied make-up” in public.

Whatever you make of the Ayatollah’s geophysics, earthquakes in Iran are no laughing matter: a magnitude 6.6 earthquake in 2003 killed 31,000 people in the ancient city of Bam. The entire country is crisscrossed by fault lines, several of which run under Teheran. The New York Times reports that a magnitude 7 or greater earthquake could kill as many as one million people in Teheran and the surrounding area.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when not calling on the U.N. to investigate 9/11, has called for at least five million of Teheran’s residents to leave the city so as to make it less crowded and more manageable when the long-predicted “big one” strikes. His proposal includes “land, loans at four per cent interest and substantial subsidies” for those willing to relocate.

Everywhere you look, people are increasingly nervous about the ground beneath their feet. The catastrophe in Haiti, the huge earthquakes in Chile, China, along the U.S./Mexico border, and now the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull have people feeling a bit vulnerable.

My question is: what took you so long?

Disrupting civilization?

When I read about airlines complaining that unnecessary precaution is costing them hundreds of millions of dollars a day or about the “hardships” being visited on travelers, I smile and think “count yourselves blessed if this is the only – pardon the pun – fallout from the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull.” As Discover magazine put it, Icelandic volcanoes have been “disrupting weather and history since 1783,” at the very least.

“1783” refers to the eruption of Laki that year. The VEI 6 eruption (Eyjafjallajokull was most likely a VEI 2) lasted eight months and changed the course of history. Its gas emissions are thought to have directly killed 23,000 people in Britain alone.

Even worse was what Laki’s venting of sulfur dioxide did to the weather: it caused, among other things, severe thunderstorms that killed cattle; an exceptionally severe winter that caused an additional 8,000 deaths in Britain alone; and extreme weather in France that contributed to crop failure and famine which, in turn, led to the social unrest that culminated in the French Revolution.

Thirty-two years later, the eruption of Tambora, a VEI 7, which ejected ten times as much material as Laki, gave us the “Year Without a Summer.”

These are just two eruptions of two volcanoes. There are an estimated 1500 active volcanoes around the world, twenty-one of them in the continental United States. While not all of them have the potential for these kinds of eruptions, a disconcerting – at least to me – number of them do. As Simon Winchester recently wrote in the Guardian, volcanoes are “creatures that will continue to do their business over the aeons, quite careless of the fate of the myriad varieties of life that teems beneath them and on their flanks. Including, of course, ours.”

Then there are earthquakes. Tokyo, Istanbul, Lima, Karachi, and Delhi, to name but a few cities, are located on major fault lines. The unprecedented movement of people from the countryside to the cities has greatly increased the potential lethality of these faults: major earthquakes in any of these cities will almost certainly kill tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people, injure many times more, and inflict major damage on national economies. The aftermath would be, to use a suitably religious word, apocalyptic.

Making creation obey?

As we saw in Haiti and Chile, wealth and the building codes it makes possible can mitigate the impact of earthquakes but they aren’t a guarantee: despite Japan’s world-leading earthquake precautions and building codes, the 1995 Kobe earthquake killed more than 6400 people and caused damage equivalent to 2.5 percent of Japan’s GDP. In contrast, the slightly more powerful Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 “only” killed 63 people.

What neither the Japanese nor anyone else could do is predict – never mind prevent – the earthquake from striking where they were most vulnerable, which brings me back to Ayatollah Sedighi. The connection between “wearing tight coats and flimsy headscarves and layers of skillfully applied make-up” in public and earthquakes is preposterous to the modern mind but you know what else is preposterous? Our belief that we can bend the rest of creation to our will.

As Michael Allen Gillespie documented in The Theological Origins of Modernity, the belief that understanding how nature works “could carry humanity to hitherto unimaginable heights” is a defining characteristic of modernity. For Francis Bacon, by discovering the “hidden powers by which nature moves” we can “gain mastery” over it and ameliorate human suffering.

<[>Descartes saw Bacon and raised him: mastery over nature not only could alleviate our suffering, it could make man the “immortal lord of all creation.” We could become the “master and possessor of nature by dispossessing its current owner, that is, by taking it away from God.”

While modernity did not drink this hubris-flavored Kool Aid in toto – for instance, Hobbes denied that we are capable of this kind of mastery – modern science proceeds as if discovery of the “hidden powers,” and the “mastery” such knowledge provides, is possible.

Oh sure, there are ritual displays of “humility,” such as acknowledging that we are part of nature, or “caveats” that mastery lies in the “distant future” but who is kidding whom? The human genome had scarcely been mapped when we started reading about “Liberation Biology” and taking control of our evolution.

We talk about the “singularity” when it’s far from clear how are going to overcome the impending repeal of Moore’s law. And we fantasize about terraforming Mars when simply landing an unmanned vehicle – never mind a manned one – on Mars is the stuff of white-knuckle adventures.

These claims of god-like powers aren’t rooted in actual knowledge and capabilities or even reasonable projections of the same – they are statements of faith by and in those who believe that they have dispossessed the owner.

In reply (to paraphrase Psalm 2) the earth’s crust laughs and scoffs at them. It clears its throat, produces an eruption one ten-thousandth as powerful as Laki and, just like that, “the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean would suddenly seem deeper, the European continent wider and longer – almost as if we had gone back in time a century.” Imagine what would happen if this one or, God forbid, this one erupted.

Actually, we probably can’t. We take the ground beneath our feet for granted. We believe that, absent some miscalculation or folly on our part, i.e., something we do, the rest of creation will allow us to go about our business undisturbed.

Uh, no. As Will Durant is supposed to have said, “civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” Or, as George Will summed it up in his review of Winchester’s book, “Geology has joined biology in lowering mankind’s self-esteem. Geology suggests how mankind’s existence is contingent on the geological consent of the planet. Although the planet is hospitable for the moment, it is indifferent – eventually it will be lethally indifferent – to its human passengers.”

As a Christian, I agree with Pascal when he wrote that “when the universe has crushed him man will still be nobler than that which kills him, because he knows that he is dying, and of its victory the universe knows nothing.” But, like Pascal, we need to remember that the source of that nobility is having been created me’at melohim, “a little lower than the angels,” and not the wonder and awe – at least in our minds – inspired by the Babels we build.

The rest of creation isn’t “indifferent” to us, our destinies are, after all, intertwined. But the work of our hands? Please. Button your coats and secure you scarves, something tells me the ride is about to get bumpy.


For more insight to this topic, get the book,
The Providence of God, by Paul Helm, at our online store. Or read the article, “From the Beginning,” by R. Albert Mohler, Jr.