23 December 2007

The Gods must be restless? Take a look at the scientists.

Posted by Jessica Ball

I just finished reading the most recent National Geographic, and I spent some time thinking about Andrew Marshall’s article, “The Gods Must Be Restless”. In it, he talks about some of the beliefs that have grown up around Indonesian volcanoes – and there are a lot of them, considering that Indonesia has the most active volcanoes of anywhere in the world.

I found myself conflicted about the attitudes of some of the people who live in the shadow of these volcanoes, especially the Gatekeeper of Merapi. While I can certainly understand the importance of respecting beliefs and traditions of the Indonesian poeple regarding their volcanoes, it almost seems criminally negligent of their spiritual leaders to ignore or even oppose the efforts of scientists and local civil authorities to alert them to the dangers they face. Scientists are sincerely trying to help, and it seems that they’re hitting an impossible situation: if people don’t heed their warnings because local spiritual leaders say not to, and nothing happens, then people are more inclined to trust them than the scientists; if they choose not to listen and something does happen, the scientists are blamed for not trying hard enough, or telling them sooner, etc. (I know this isn’t always the case, and that many people take the scientists very seriously, but it’s those few who don’t that make things difficult for everyone.)

I’m reminded of Harry Truman at Mt. St. Helens, or the Aetas on Pinatubo. It boggles my mind that people somehow think that volcanologists are somehow trying to advance personal agendas or take their land or otherwise screw them over. Every volcanologist I’ve ever met has certainly not been in the job for the money or the prestige – they’re working in the field because they’re passionate about it, and they care about making people’s lives safer. Those are my motivations, at least. I want to specialize in volcanic hazards mitigation because I love volcanoes, AND because I want to use my skills to help others. And it’s why this article has touched on such a sore spot. I know I’ll come across this sort of bias and willful ignorance in my work, and I hope I can prepare myself to deal with it, but I really wish it didn’t exist.

And the quote that suggests the Merapi Gatekeeper thinks “the alerts are merely guesses by men at far remove from the spirit of the volcano”? That just makes my blood boil. How can you not be in touch with the spirit of a volcano when you’re listening to it breathe, feeling its pulse under your feet and watching it bleed molten rock and explode with all the violence of a savage beast? How can you not feel a connection with something like that? Just because I will use electronic equipment and the latest technologies to monitor a volcano doesn’t mean I won’t also fight up and down its slopes, and get ash and mud under my fingernails, and make a thousand little blood sacrifices in my efforts to learn about it. To me, a volcano can’t be anything other than a living thing, one with its own personality and temperment, and I take offense at anyone who says that I can’t forge a connection with it because I am a scientist.

Now, I won’t deny that superstition can have its place in dealing with volcanoes. I myself took the precaution of leaving tokens for Pele on my last visit to Hawaii (especially after the strep throat and ear infection I picked up after my first trip, where I did do some legal sample collecting off National Park land). I’ll probably do the same thing again wherever I end up studying volcanoes for graduate school. But when people have their heads buried so thoroughly in their superstitions and rituals and traditions that they ignore the efforts of the scientists who are trying to protect them? That’s when I start to get angry.