Over the past few months, I have have been hearing friends, colleagues, and even family saying: “Why is it that there are a lot of disasters happening these days? Are we close to the end of the world?” I would usually just smile and get on my way. But in instances where I am pressed for an answer, I would tell them that the feeling of having more disasters in recent years is an illusion. It is not actually that there is an increase in the number of human-made or natural disasters, but it is because disasters can now be easily reported and shared to the rest of the world through technology.
Going back 500 years ago, the world pretty much centered on Europe. The rest of the world, even those known parts such as the Americas, China, India, and Africa, were mere lands where Europe sourced out its pelts, spices, slaves, gold, and other needs and wants. If a tsunami happened in the Indian Ocean at that time, nobody would know, much less care about it.
Title page of the Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien from 1609. The German-language ‘Relation’ had been published by Johann Carolus at the latest since 1605 in Strassburg, and is recognized by the World Association of Newspapers as the world’s first newspaper. (via)
Fast forward a couple of hundred years later, the world suddenly got much bigger with the United States becoming independent and European Roman Catholic missionaries reaching as far as Japan and the East Indies in their quest to save more souls. Europe suddenly got aware of the peoples and places beyond the Caucauses, the Fertile Crescent, the Nile and the Silk Road.
Added to this awareness was the creation of the printing press, which further allowed books, pamphlets, and newspapers to be easily produced. This increasing view of the world, couple with the better capability to reproduce knowledge, allowed more people to acquire knowledge of the areas beyond their nation’s borders.
Still, the processing of information took time. Letters from European scholars in India and China had to be hand carried by couriers over land or by sea, all the way back to Europe. In island colonies over the Pacific such as the Philippines and Guam, the letters had to sent by ship to Mexico, before they could be sent to Europe. The travel of information would take months before they are gathered by the colonial capitals and taken into account. If a volcanic eruption in Indonesia occured, the Dutch colonial administrators in the Netherlands would only know about it by the time that it had subsided and buried several towns and caused several deaths.
Telegraph Connections (Telegraphen Verbindungen), 1891 Stielers Hand-Atlas, Plate No. 5, Weltkarte in Mercator projection (via)
Then came the telegraph. With cables from Europe and the United States stretching to as far as the Philippines, Australia, and even Hawaii, the world suddenly had a system of communication which would allow not only status reports from the colonies but even personal messsages from families who had some relatives on the other side of the world. The advent of the telegraph also allowed the growth and development of international correspondence and reportage from different parts of the world.
By this time, disasters happening in territories can already be easily reported to the colonial capitals. The publication of the events in the colonies though was still dependent on the editorial prerogative of the owner of the newspapers, who were of course, of the same race as the colonizers. Where the deaths and damage of disasters in the colonies involved the colonizing race, the reports were published. Where it involved only the indigenous population, it was sometimes ignored. Such was the case of the 1911 Taal Volcano eruption, where only 1,335 lives were reported to have been lost despite the destruction of seven barangays or villages of the indigenous population.
Fast forward again to a hundred years, the world cringes in fear due to the supposed increase of natural disasters. A few months ago, Japan was rocked with a Magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami. Before that, there were floods in Europe, Australia, the Philippines, and even in the Middle East. There were also earthquakes in Pakistan, China, Haiti and Burma. And then just a few days ago, tornadoes blasted through the United States, destroying lives and property.
With all these disasters being reported by media organizations, tweeted by affected individuals, and posted online by bloggers, some are starting to have the feeling that there is an increase in natural disasters. But, what people often take for granted is that with the Internet, social media, and smart phones, the events that happen in several areas around the world, particularly those of floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, and landslides, are easily captured, sent and distributed unlike how information was processed a hundred years ago. And in most cases, you find not only one person tweeting, blogging, or posting a picture, video, or information about an event. Instead, you find hundreds, if not thousands of people sharing information over the Internet.
In recent years, scientists have observed and warned that the rains and eartquakes maybe stronger than the ones that happened decades or even centuries ago. But they did not say that there will be an increased number of typhoons or earthquakes. The Philippines will still be having an average of 20 earthquakes a day; some will be felt, others negligible. And the country will still have 20 typhoons or storms a year; some may cause damages, others may just pass through. And there is no way to prevent these rains and earthquakes from passing through the country. The most we can do is prepare for the worst possible outcome should these natural phenomenon strike.
If it is information which gives some people the feeling that there is an increase in the number of disasters, then it should also be information which should enlighten us that there is none. The feeling of an increasing number of disasters is merely the consequence of more people in different parts of the world having better and faster means to share information on what is happening from where they are. This capacity to share information should be viewed not with fear, but with the assurance that should anything occur in our own communities, we are able to quickly share the information with the rest of the world. This should give us hope that some form of help or assistance will be extended to us in the event that natural disasters strike.