Natural Disasters: Contemplating Catastrophe
Painful as they are, natural disasters are an inextricable part of the world around us.
Even those of us not immediately affected by recent mega-earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, tornados, and extreme weather of every kind are feeling a little uneasy. We like to assume the climate, the composition of the atmosphere and the oceans, and the position of the continents are fixed within a familiar range of variability, and basically favorable to the status quo. But we couldn’t be more wrong.
Earth’s species and continents come and go, and strange and wondrous worlds manifest and dissolve on a scale of time we can hardly fathom. At the close of the Permian period, about 252 million years ago, the world’s landmasses were bound together as one vast supercontinent. Voluminous volcanic activity and drastic changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere and the ocean contributed to the extinction of at least 90 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land species. Dinosaurs subsequently dominated the landscape until the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago, when a meteorite impact brought on their demise with another massive climatic disruption, ushering in the era of mammals.
Rather than a static platform or a commodity, the planet is a living expression of subtle intelligence.
And so it goes: the chaos of devastation gives rise to something new. In the yoga tradition, the perennial cycles of destruction, creation, and maintenance are described as Shiva’s dance of dissolution, the creative work of Brahma, and the sustaining grace of Vishnu.
Our current climatic and geologic upheavals can be attributed to two forms of fire that enliven our planet. The heart of our planet is a fiery molten-metal dynamo that creates the earth’s magnetic field as well as heats circulation cells that melt the upper mantle, fuel volcanic eruptions, create new oceanic crust, and drive continental crust across the surface of the earth. Continents collide, crumple, dive under each other, meld together—and break up and drift apart. The restless plates and constantly changing surface of the earth give us earthquakes, but also mountains, marshes, ocean basins, continental shelves, and a rich variety of ecosystems and climates that give rise to, and are nourished by, the diversity of life—from gophers, grizzlies, and vultures to orchids, pigweed, and copepods.
The other form of fire that drives events on the planet is the sun. The sun heats the earth’s surface unevenly (more heat at the equator), which results in storms and the transfer of heat from the hot tropics to the poles via wind and ocean currents. The sun also drives the hydrological cycle—the circulation of all water on the planet and in the atmosphere. And, of course, plants harvest the energy of the sun through photosynthesis, creating the foundation of the food chain. The “Saura Sukta,” a hymn to the sun from the Yajur Veda, describes its role perfectly: “Divine and majestic, the sun causes manifestation and dissolution. It spreads greenery and clothes the whole world in darkness…Surya’s rays distribute the beneficence of rain over the entire world, and by their energy, support the further creation of wealth.”
Without the restless continental plates and the wealth-bestowing energy of the sun, our planet would become a homogenous, lifeless environment in an atmosphere of spent exhaust gases. There would be no great reservoir of precious water to replenish the rain clouds, no life-giving air to breathe, no roses, rice, or milk—no place to call home.
But life is not just born of the fortuitous conditions on earth; all of life actively contributes to the creation of the environment. The oxygen in the atmosphere is sustained by the respiration of plants, which harvest the sun for energy. The carbon dioxide concentration is regulated by plants, shell-building marine organisms, the chemistry of the oceans, and numerous other interactions, which we are only now beginning to appreciate.
Our existence is part and parcel of the great yajna of minerals, plants, and animals and the cycles of destruction, creation, and maintenance that characterize this world.
From the yogic point of view, and increasingly from the scientific point of view, the natural world is a continuously shifting manifestation of the subtle forces of nature forming a matrix in which life not only arises, but which is modified and regulated by its constituents in various feedback loops. Rather than a static platform or a commodity, the planet is a living expression of subtle intelligence, which permeates us as well as everything around us, and responds to our activities. This dynamic state of exquisite interconnection is familiar to biologists as the web of life, and to geologists as the cycles of minerals and elements. To yogic philosophers this concept is known as Indra’s net—an infinite web extending in all directions, with a brilliant jewel at each knot linked to and reflecting the image of all the other jewels in the net. To the Vedic seers it’s at the heart of yajna—the grand ritual of life summarized in a verse from the Bhagavad Gita (3.14): “Beings are born from food; food is produced through the rain god; rain is produced through yajna (sacrifice); and yajna (sacrifice) arises from action.” Our existence is part and parcel of the great yajna of minerals, plants, and animals and the cycles of destruction, creation, and maintenance that characterize this world.
The dawning of this realization is the true source of our unease in the face of recent environmental stresses. Our activities are creating unintended consequences—from violent and erratic storms to droughts and deluges—and it occurs to us that perhaps we haven’t done right by our planet. We’re a bit like the sorcerer’s apprentice, decapitating mountains, splitting atoms, splicing genes, inadvertently turning up the global thermostat, and tugging on a string that threatens to unravel the whole fabric of our world. We’ve paved over marshes; starved deltas and swamps that mitigate and regulate the effects of storms; choked rivers with dams, levees, and dikes; and sent some 90,000 man-made chemicals into every corner of the environment without considering how they might come back to haunt us.
Painful as they are, natural disasters shake us from our complacency. They remind us that it is folly to tinker with the forces of nurturance for short-term gain while ignoring the long-term consequences. Perhaps it takes a mega-quake to evoke a sense of awe, to make it possible for us to stand at dawn and dusk as the Vedic sages did and offer water with gratitude and reverence, to understand that the sun and the wind bring life-giving rain, that the earth gives us minerals, soil, and structure, and that we are an inextricable part of the world around us.