Editor's Introduction: Earthquakes, Seismology, Globalization


Deborah Wyrick

North Carolina State University, Raleigh NC

Copyright © 2001 by Deborah Wyrick, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

    What pow'rful hand with force unknown,
    Can these repeated tremblings make?
    Or do the imprison'd vapours groan?
    Or do the shores with fabled Tridents shake?
    Ah no! the tread of impious feet,
    The conscious earth impatient bears;
    And shudd'ring with the guilty weight,
    One common grave for her bad race prepares.
    --Anonymous, "The Earthquake," 1750

  1. Earthquakes, like other natural disasters, are often called 'Acts of God.' Whereas the Hebrew Scriptures described earthquakes as awesome marks of God's presence (e.g. Kings 19:11), the Gospels included earthquakes among the signs of apocalypse: "For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places" (Matt. 24:7). Quakes continued to be coupled with collective, even political error in Christian teaching, from St. Jerome onward. The massive Lisbon earthquake of 1755, for instance, occurred on a Sunday and killed thousands of Portuguese churchgoers, providing 'evidence' for anti-Catholic sermonizing elsewhere in Europe. Of course, believing in heavenly direction of earthly catastrophe is not exclusive to the Christian West. In India, the 1819 Kutch earthquake -- which took place in the same area as the devastating 7.9 magnitude quake in Gujarat this past January -- raised a nine-meter vertical displacement that subsequently was named Allah Bund, or Allah's Wall. In China, traditionalists have interpreted earthquakes as mandates from heaven, usually directed at ineffective, corrupt, or brutal governments.

  2. The history of seismology indicates a certain dissatisfaction with such theological explanations. For at least two thousand years, individuals, organizations, governments, and multinational groups have attempted not only to understand but to predict and control earthquakes. In so doing, unusual alliances have been forged, involving religious, political, colonial, and scientific interests. Postcolonial studies most frequently addresses globalization in relation to economics and culture; it may also be addressed in relation to science.

    The Jesuit Science

  3. Given the widespread belief that earthquakes signal divine displeasure -- articulated in Christian exegesis by reading disruptions in the book of nature as indices of human sin -- it may seem paradoxical that the Western science of seismology was pioneered by the Jesuit order of the Roman Catholic Church. As part of the movement to differentiate the new order from medieval monastic regimes, the first Jesuit College (the Collegio Romano, founded in 1551, later Gregorian University) included modern mathematics and physical sciences in its curriculum; Jesuit missionaries packed scientific instruments along with their bibles as they dispersed throughout Europe, Asia, and the New World. Indeed, Jesuits are credited with creating the first international seismographic monitoring system. The Manila station was established in 1868, the Tanarive, Madagascar, station in 1899, the Zikawei, China, station in 1904, the Belen, Cuba, station, in 1907; many of these locations were equipped with seismographs of Jesuit design. At its height, the 'Jesuit network' had forty stations throughout the world. After World War II and the breakup of European colonial empires, most of these reverted to national ownership or were assumed into the Global World Wide Seismographic Network sponsored by the U.S. Government, although Jesuit-run institutions continue to operate a few stations in North and South America and in Europe.

  4. This capsule history of Jesuit seismology suggests that earthquakes gave Jesuits unique opportunities to combine educational, humanitarian, information-gathering, and research interests into a global scientific initiative. As such, the Jesuit seismological network influenced earth sciences in far-reaching ways. First is the alliance with political institutions. Jesuit 'intelligence collection' for the Vatican is well known, but priests also had to work with foreign nations to promulgate scientific as well as religious activities. To secure permission to operate seismic stations, Jesuits either had to convince local governments that studying earthquakes was beneficial public policy or to cooperate with existing political designs. Jesuit activities in China, for instance -- from directing the Beijing astronomical observatory (c. 1700) to running the 20th-century Zikawei station -- built on the two-thousand-year-old history of Chinese rulers' promotion of scientific knowledge. This promotion included sponsorship of the invention of earthquake recording devices. The earliest of these were probably simple pendulums suspended over a sand bed, but by the second century A.D., a Chinese court scholar devised an elaborate machine involving metal balls balanced in dragons' mouths: an internal pendulum registering ground tremors would dislodge one of the balls, indicating the direction of the earthquake.

  5. The second legacy of Jesuit seismology is the envisioning of geophysics as a transnational concern. The study of earthquakes, or oceanic tides, or deep-earth structures must be conducted during extended time periods over large swathes of the globe, thereby requiring collaboration among many governments and quasi-governmental agencies. The 'cooperative pursuit of knowledge' aspect of global geophysics can be contrasted with the more localized -- and privatized -- concerns of exploration geophysics, that branch of the field devoted to locating and extracting natural resources. Modern exploration geophysics is rooted in Western colonial projects and continues to support neocolonial efforts to control the earth's wealth as well as efforts of postcolonial nations to uncover their own assets. Even national geophysical institutions may have colonial origins: the Geological Survey of India, for instance, began in the mid-nineteenth century with the East India Company's effort to find coal fields in Raniganj, Jharia and Karanpura; the GSI, as any reader of Kipling's Kim knows, was from the start entangled with the political surveillance integral to playing the Great Game of Central Asian empire-building.

    The Global Politics of Seismology

  6. Today's seismology is increasingly political and international. For one reason, nations have realized that geophysical science may describe natural phenomena but can neither predict nor control them. In the 1970s, for example, China devoted enormous resources to predicting earthquakes. The country's signal success was proactively evacuating people from buildings in the Haicheng-Yingkow region, which was subsequently rocked by a magnitude 7.3 quake that otherwise would have killed tens of thousands of people; a year later, in 1976, the Chinese failed to forecast the giant Tangshan quake that resulted in a death toll of about 250,000. Not surprisingly, prediction now has fallen out of favor in most countries. The U.S. Geophysical Survey in fact prohibits specific earthquake predictions because of their inaccuracy and their adverse socioeconomic impacts (decline in property values, increased public spending on preparedness, temporary or permanent relocation, reduced availability of mortgages and insurance, public panic). Similarly, schemes to prevent earthquakes (e.g. pouring fluids into or igniting small explosions within known faults) are, at best, quixotic. Another reason for the changed valence of seismology is international security needs. Most prominently, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty drafted seismology into monitoring projects, necessitating creation of multi-national organizations (such as the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology [IRIS] consortium, based in the U.S. but affiliated with universities around the world) to collect, interpret, and compare data from earthquakes and from underground nuclear explosions. The map below indicates the global distribution of seismic stations in the 1990s.

  7. Obviously, geophysics cannot escape imbrication in political concerns, as the 'use' of IRIS reports to help shape the U.S. government's India-Pakistan policy indicates. Nor does it necessarily want to. Government funding facilitates significant scientific advances: nuclear monitoring needs have furthered seismographic technology and seismological theory, among other things producing (in prosperous countries) more effective building safety codes for earthquake-prone areas; vastly improved geodesic data have resulted from Cold War weapons research, as ballistic missile accuracy depends upon precise knowledge of earth's contours, crustal depths, and magnetism. To point out such interrelationships is not to condemn geophysics as the willing servant of its military-industrial master, which would be a simplistic reversion to tired 'two cultures' or 'evil government vs. good populism' oppositions. Instead, it reminds us that all knowledge - no matter how disinterested, objective, or altruistic -- may carve unpredictable and ethically ambiguous channels as it moves through human history.

    But All Earthquakes Are Local . . .

  8. Sciences are both intellectual disciplines and social practices. Whereas seismological investigative research operates diachronically and globally, the political effects of seismology take place synchronically, on local levels. But earthquakes themselves have always produced political effects, the complexity of which increases in proportion to the human and property losses incurred. Reading through recent issues of the Times of India, for instance, discloses a variety of political concerns: questions about accepting international relief (e.g. from the IMF and the UN as well as from individual countries); corruption and inefficiency in handling donated funds and goods; accusations about playing party politics at the expense of earthquake victims; charges of criminal conspiracy, even culpable homicide, directed at builders and engineers. Nonetheless, what comes through most powerfully is the human misery caused by the Gujarat earthquake.

  9. Over 20,000 people died. Tens of thousands are homeless. Famine and epidemic disease risks have multiplied. The cities of Bhuj and Anjar are virtually destroyed, and severe damage occurred in Ahmedabad, Bhachau, and the port of Kandla. Government estimates place the economic loss at approximately a billion and a half dollars; the other losses -- for individuals, for communities, for the region's future -- are immeasurable.

    Introducing the Jouvert Fund -- and This Issue of the Journal

  10. In the name of its readers and contributors, Jouvert has sent a donation to Gujarat Earthquake Relief, established by the Times of India. We think it appropriate that this donation is the first expenditure of moneys from the recently instituted Jouvert Fund. Although its primary objective is to sustain publication of the journal, and to keep Jouvert available free-of-charge, the fund can also be used for other educational and philanthropic purposes. We will continue to report on the projects and initiatives supported by the Jouvert Fund.

  11. We have been able to secure contributions to this fund because of the journal's growth, a growth evident in both the number of 'hits' and the number of submissions. This issue of Jouvert, for example, illustrates the geographical (Botswana, Hong Kong, India, Singapore, Canada, Australia, U.S.) as well as the subject-matter range of our contributors. In addition, the articles demonstrate diverse organizational and rhetorical approaches to postcolonial studies - from a conversation about gender issues (Emevwo Biakolo, Maitseo Balaane, Michelle Commeyras) to a 'scholarly array' (Rajeev S. Patke) to fantasy narrative (Scott Fogden) to poetic meditation (Jerome S. McElroy); they also demonstrate diverse theoretical frameworks - psychoanalytic (Alexandra Schultheis), comparative (Hsiu-Chuang Deppman), locational-contextual (Timothy Weiss). We thank these writers, and our reviewers (Liza Ann Acosta, Kanishka Chowdury, Glenn D'Cruz, Mala Pandurang, Deborah Wyrick), for this issue of Jouvert.

    Works Consulted

    Bolt, Bruce A. Earthquakes. New York: W. H. Freeman, 1988.

    "Gujarat Earthquake January 2001." U.S. Geological Survey. http://cires.colorado.edu/%7Ebilham/Gujarat2001.htm (Feb. 12, 2001)

    "The History of the Geology Survey of India, 1851-2001." Geology Survey of India. http://www.gsi.gov.in/hist.htm (March 04, 2001)

    "Indian Earthquake, 26 January 03:16 UTC." British Geological Survey. http://www.grsg.nmh.ac.uk/India.htm (Feb. 12, 2001)

    Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS). "Home Page." 2001. http://www.iris.edu/ (March 04, 2001)

    Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS). Nuclear Testing and Nonproliferation: Report to the United States Congress. 1994. http://www.iris.iris.edu/HQ/Bluebook/ (March 04, 2001)

    Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. Ed. Edward W. Said. New York: Viking, 1992.

    The Times of India. Earthquake Coverage - January 27 - February 28 2001. http://www.timesofindia.com (Feb. 28, 2001)

    Udías, Augustin, and William Stauder. "The Jesuit Contribution to Seismology." Seismological Research Letters 67.3 (1996): 10-19.

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