Natural and Unnatural disasters


Tristan penguins

Recently there have been two different ‘disasters’ which have had environmental impacts on remote islands. This provides an interesting case for us to identify our own understanding of what is natural.

The first is in the Galapagos Islands, which have suffered the effects of the tsunami that has caused so much harm in Japan. In the Galapagos, especially in Santa Cruz and also San Cristobal, where I was a few months ago accompanying a turtle expert, several marine turtle nests have been destroyed by the tsunami. In San Cristobal the ocean reached a land locked lagoon and also harmed flamingos. There is also considerable damage done to the Charles Darwin research station and to populations, fishing boats and property. The Ecuadorian government at one point considered an evacuation and sent significant emergency aid supplies. Read the article here (if you know Portuguese).

In another more recent episode there has been another environmental disaster in a remote Island, this time in Tristan da Cunha (the most remote inhabited place on earth) in the South Atlantic. But here the cause is human. More than 800 tons of fuel oil have leaked and covered the ocean around the island. Over 20 000 penguins of a unique species are under risk. There are also fears that rodents from the sinking ship will affect the fauna on the islands and birds nests. The 22 members of the crew were rescued safely, and the 273 inhabitants of the British Island appear to be safe. Read more here.

The interesting case here is to examine our conception of ‘nature’ on whether one disaster appears worse than the other because it is man made or natural. Just looking at the environmental repercussions (the human tragedy of Japan is unquestionably more dramatic), does one appear to cause more indignation than the other? What is our view of the natural? As has been argued before, our unconscious view of the natural tends to dictate how we judge and approach reality. In climate change debates for example, given the same physical fact, the issue of whether cause is anthropogenic or natural leads to a wide diversity of opinions as to what should be done and for what reasons.

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