It has been over two weeks since the great West Sumatran earthquake.  Bricks, stones and mortars are piling up the ghosts of roads and streets; official death toll is closing in a thousand.   As aids are rushing into the region and rescue workers are still working around the clock, whispers, text messages and sermons are spreading that somehow we—and “we” can mean all Indonesians, West Sumatrans, Padangese, or even just the president, depending on which version you subscribe to—are to blame for the natural disaster.

An understandably grief-stricken and confused chicken-feed factory worker in Padang believed that the quake occurred because many Padangese youths had been engaging in sinful activities by the beach during Ramadan.  A less grief-stricken yet apparently equally confused senior member of a prominent political party blamed the president for being born on his ominous birth date, which “invited” natural disasters.  Chain text messages imply that the disaster was a demonstration of the wrath of a vengeful God.  Chairman of the North Sumatran Indonesian Council of Ulemmas (MUI) declared that the earthquake was a divine warning for the government to eradicate immorality.

It wouldn’t take long for a relatively reasonable person to point out that Indonesia has arguably become more religiously conservative than in the past, or that in the last few years some of the deadliest earthquakes occurred in religiously pious areas, like the 2003 earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam and the 2004 big one off the coast of Aceh, while “places of sin and immorality” like Las Vegas, the island of Ibiza, and even Jakarta, have been spared from any major natural catastrophe.  So either we’ve been misrepresenting God’s warnings, or—here’s a crazy idea—we’re not the reason the earth’s crust trembles.

However, we’re really looking at this the wrong way.  We may not be the reason the earth shook in West Sumatra, but we did cause the disaster.  Bear with me; it’s really not that confusing.

The very term “natural disaster” is truly anthropocentric—it is an entirely human-centered notion.  For hundreds of millions of years this planet has gone through literally countless earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, meteor impacts, lightning storms, and massive volcanic eruptions.  For hundreds of millions of years, nobody ever called them “natural disaster;” they were simply “natural events.”  It was always business as usual for Mother Nature.

Then enter modern humans.  Upon seeing how natural events might occasionally destroy our homes and take away our lives, we began to see said events as disastrous.  As time passed by, self-centered creatures as humans are, we started to believe that a powerful entity—either nature or an even more powerful being—was deliberately causing disasters because of us.  As such, throughout history we’ve been trying hard to decipher the divine warning and appease whoever causes the disaster appropriately: slaughter a pig, sacrifice a virgin, stop playing at the beach, or elect a president with a better birth date.

Yet the cold hard truth is that were there no humans, there would be no disaster.  The flipside of this truth is that while we may not be able to stop an earthquake, we can take measures to prevent a disaster.  In December 2003, both California and southern Iran were hit by 6.5 Richter-scale earthquakes, separated by only a week.  The death toll in California was 3; in Iran, it was 30,000.  Some might thus conclude that Californians were more pious and God-fearing than the Iranians.  A likelier explanation is the worlds of difference in building codes and constructions in the two areas.

What we do to our environment also matters significantly.  The roots of large trees can strengthen the ground’s structure, decreasing its likelihood to slide even during earthquake.  Take those trees away, and nothing holds back the earth from crumbling down the slope.

Earthquakes are not the only natural event we should be concerned about.  Climate change has led to higher concentrated rainfall in a shorter period of time in Indonesia.  Yet we’re still clogging our rivers with garbage and destroy large patches of our forest.  60 percent of the forest area in Mt. Muria, Central Java, is destroyed.  That’s a disaster waiting to happen; just don’t blame God or Mother Nature when it does.  While we’re at it, let’s keep an eye on those volcanic mountains in our backyard.

So at the end of the day, our actions do matter, but not the way some people like the North Sumatran MUI’s chairman would like to believe.  It has got more to do with our vigilance, preparedness and planning, rather than a certain set of moral virtues.  It’s more pressing for district administrations to impose better building codes than to close down pubs and lounges.  Lawmakers need to extend the role, build the capacity, and provide more funding for the national disaster response agency, instead of wasting public funds on legislating morality.  And it’s more important for parents to teach their children to protect the environment than to forbid them from having fun at the beach.

This is Indonesia.  The meeting point of the mighty tectonic plates.  A proud member of the ring of fire.  Depository of the monsoon rain.  Our earth, mountains and seas can be as deadly as they are life-giving.  We’ve known this for millennia; yet we, as had our ancestors, have chosen to live here and call this place home.  Unfortunately, we often forget that as we reap the bounty of this land, we must also be weary of its occasional fury.  Our land demands—and deserves—our respect.  We can’t control nature, but we can choose, through the actions we take and the decisions we make, how nature impacts us.  But to say that we cause the earth to move is not only delusional, it is utter and complete arrogance.

And edited version of this article is featured in Jakarta Globe, 20 October 2009

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