Climate change may not be responsible for the tsunami, but it is shrinking our margin of safety. It is time to shrink back ourselves.
It's scary to watch the video from Japan, and not just because of the frightening explosions at the Fukushima plant or the unstoppable surge of tsunami-wash through the streets. It's almost as unnerving to see the aftermath – the square miles of rubble, with boats piled on cars; the completely bare supermarket shelves. Because the one thing we've never really imagined is going to the supermarket and finding it empty.
What the events reveal is the thinness of the margin on which modernity lives. There's not a country in the world more modern and civilised than Japan; its building codes and engineering kept its great buildings from collapsing when the much milder quake in Haiti last year flattened everything. But clearly it's not enough. That thin edge on which we live, and which at most moments we barely notice, provided nothing against the power of the natural world.
Global warming didn't cause the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Miyagi coast, but global warming daily is shrinking the tranquility on which civilisation everywhere depends. Consider: sea levels have begun to rise. We're seeing record temperatures that depress harvests – the amount of grain per capita on the planet has been falling for years. Because warm air holds more water vapour than cold, the chance of severe flooding keeps going up.
There have always been natural disasters, and there always will be. For 10,000 years the planet has been by and large benign; you could tell where the safe margin for civilisation was because that's, by definition, where civilisation was built. But if the sea level rises a metre, that margin shrinks considerably: on a beach that slopes in at 1 degree, the sea is now nearly 90 metres nearer. And it's not just a literal shrinkage – the insecurity that comes with smaller food stocks or more frequent floods also takes a psychological toll: the world seems more crowded because it is more crowded.
We can try to deal with this in two ways. One is to try to widen it with more technology. If the Earth's temperature is rising, maybe we could "geoengineer" the planet, throwing sulphur into the atmosphere in an effort to block incoming sunlight. It's theoretically possible. But researchers warn it could do more harm than good, and maybe this isn't the week to trust the grandest promises of engineers, not when they've all but lost control of the highest technology we've ever built, there at Fukushima. The other possibility is to try to build down a little: to focus on resilience, on safety.
And to do that – here's the controversial part – instead of focusing on growth. We might decide that the human enterprise (at least in the west) has got big enough, that our appetites need not to grow, but to shrink a little, in order to provide us more margin.
With Japan's horror still unfolding, there's nothing to do for the moment except watch, pray, and try to find some small ways to help people caught up in forces beyond their control.
But the lesson we should learn, perhaps, is that it's time to back off a little.