The other day I pon­tif­i­cated on the sub­ject of a lung can­cer vac­cine, but I don’t think I did a very good job of express­ing what I was think­ing. I came off a lit­tle cold­hearted, almost seem­ing to sug­gest that those who are afflicted with lung can­cer might deserve it, which isn’t what I intended to say.

So I’m going to try again, hope­fully doing a bet­ter job this time. I’ve decided to use earth­quakes as an anal­ogy, because they’re less emo­tion­ally charged; they’re forces of nature (a lot like can­cer); and, like can­cer, they’re apt to strike in even the least-​​expected areas.

I’ve writ­ten cap­sule sum­maries of three pos­si­ble ways of look­ing at responses to earth­quakes from the point of view of one who might argue that liv­ing in a quake-​​prone area is fool­ish (the dis­com­pas­sion­ate view); that earth­quake vic­tims are human and need help when caught (the com­pas­sion­ate view); and that free-​​market and nat­ural selec­tion forces are already doing every­thing nec­es­sary to cope with earth­quakes and their vic­tims (the invisible-​​handian view). I’m sure I’ve intro­duced biases in these per­spec­tives, but I’ve tried not to.

Lastly, I have attempted to address the points in all these views, offer­ing what I think might be a use­ful response to the real­ity of earth­quakes, their vic­tims, and human nature (the syn­thetic view).

The Discompassionate View

There are plenty of cases I can think of where the con­cept of com­pas­sion could be argued to be out of place — that is, places where we might say, well, he deserved it.

Imagine, for instance, how fool­ish I’d have to be to build my house on the San Andreas fault. We know the fault is there; we know where it is; and we know that one day a lot of the ground around it is going to buckle, pos­si­bly all at once, pos­si­bly as a long series of less-​​violent (rel­a­tively speak­ing) events. I’d have to be a com­plete idiot to live on the fault line (which is pretty con­ve­nient for me, since I don’t).

Okay, now sup­pose that my house — con­structed, fool­ishly, on the fault — falls right into the three-​​hundred-​​foot deep chasm that opens beneath it one fine after­noon. I’m not home when it hap­pens; maybe I’m off at IdiotCon ’07 or some­thing. I come home to find myself sans house in San Andreas.

How much right do I have to ask for help?

The Compassionate View

Ahh … but what of the hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple who do live on the fault line? Are they all there by choice? Is every per­son in LA and San Francisco a moron? Think about it. For the most part, they live fairly earthquake-​​free days. There have only been three or so really major events in the last cen­tury; that puts the day’s odds — any day’s odds — of being caught in a major dis­as­ter pretty low.*

Besides, not every­one who is there is nec­es­sar­ily a wholly free agent. Some might be con­strained by very real finan­cial prob­lems; they lit­er­ally can­not afford to move. Some may have health require­ments; maybe the salt air of the bay is good for their lungs, or the views are good for their minds. Some might have secured excel­lent work, being well-​​paid to do some­thing they love; or per­haps they’re plot­ting a course to their def­i­n­i­tion of suc­cess, one that requires them to work and live in the fault zone, at least for a cer­tain amount of time.

Some are chil­dren, liv­ing with their par­ents, and can’t move even if they want to.

And then, one day, sure enough the fault buck­les. Strata heave, then drop, mov­ing a total of six feet ver­ti­cally — and a lot of dam­age is done in less than thirty sec­onds, to thou­sands of build­ings and hun­dreds of thou­sands of lives.

The inevitable has taken place, both to those who should have known bet­ter, and to those who couldn’t have known bet­ter; as well as to the many who prob­a­bly did know bet­ter — but for what­ever rea­son, were unable (or unwill­ing) to pull up stakes and leave.

How much right do I have to ignore their pleas for help?

The Invisible-​​Handian View

Earthquakes, as with many other things, hap­pen in a fash­ion that is at once con­sis­tent but unpre­dictable. We can be prox­i­mally cer­tain that fault­lines will even­tu­ally yield seis­mic events; the like­li­hood of an earth­quake hap­pen­ing goes down as one gets far­ther and far­ther away from the fault.

Actuaries are aware of this; it’s what they’re paid to do. Thus earth­quake insur­ance is avail­able and may be pur­chased to cover dam­ages to prop­erty, houses and so on. Many of the civil defense author­i­ties in earthquake-​​prone areas are well-​​trained to han­dle seis­mic emer­gen­cies, and it’s appro­pri­ate to expect the same of the population.

Those who choose not to edu­cate them­selves on the dan­gers of earth­quakes, those who choose not to pre­pare them­selves for even min­i­mal emer­gen­cies, are likely to be selected out of the gene and/​or pop­u­la­tion pool fairly rapidly; between con­ven­tional mar­ket forces and the selec­tive nature of nature, equi­lib­rium will even­tu­ally be reached. (It could be argued that it has been reached, just on a longer scale — cen­turies — than one we nor­mally per­ceive — years.)

There’s no need, in short, for us to do any­thing par­tic­u­lar to han­dle earth­quake risks. The action-​​reaction nature of life is already han­dling it for us.

How much right do I have to impose more gov­ern­ment, more reg­u­la­tion or some sim­i­lar social pres­sure on anyone?

The Synthetic View

Insurance-​​purchasing requires fore­sight; emer­gency response is reac­tive. Relying exclu­sively on mar­ket forces, while an effec­tive reac­tive pos­ture to take, is pos­si­bly a bit cold-​​blooded. While it’s valid to object that force or reg­u­la­tion are not often desir­able, it’s prob­a­bly irra­tional to argue that they’re always bad, or will always lead to more force and more reg­u­la­tion. The reduc­tio ad absur­dum of this argu­ment is that par­ent­hood always results in tyranny — an obvi­ously false con­clu­sion which calls into doubt the premise of the “force = evil” claim.

The other, more sub­tle prob­lem with reliance on mar­ket forces or nat­ural selec­tion is that such reliance over­looks voli­tion, which is a hall­mark of ani­mal behav­ior; and in par­tic­u­lar it over­looks the abil­ity to pos­sess fore­sight, to plan ahead, to stock away food in sum­mer against lean times in win­ter — in short, rely­ing exclu­sively on reac­tive processes strips away the sin­gle great­est evo­lu­tion­ary advan­tage ever granted to an ani­mal in the his­tory of life on Earth: The abil­ity to pre­dict the future.

Not in the psy­chic woo-​​woo sense; in the very real, prac­ti­cal sense we all use all the time, for instance by putting a few bucks into IRAs. Or by buy­ing earth­quake insurance.

Contrarily, there is some­thing to be said for the prag­ma­tism of the natural-​​selection view; by elim­i­nat­ing the stu­pid or the thought­less from the gene and meme pool, we increase the over­all intel­li­gence of our species — but at a cost to our com­pas­sion. It’s pretty easy, when you’re not a vic­tim of an earth­quake, to feel supe­rior to the fools who were caught in one; it’s much less easy to be accept­ing of fate if you hap­pen to be the one with a build­ing falling down on your head.

Since I don’t live where quakes strike, I could argue that I am not required to help those who are vic­tims — but where I live is likely to be as much a mat­ter of chance as it is of will.

Had I been born in the bay area, for instance, I might never have moved away; and it’s dis­tin­cly pos­si­ble that I would have been caught in the 1989 earth­quake in San Francisco (I moved to Tucson in the sum­mer of ’89 from a small Arizona town in order to attend the UofA; had I lived in SF, I prob­a­bly would not have moved at all, choos­ing to attend col­lege there instead).

Put another way, there is a ten­dency in all of us to believe that what we do, how we believe, the lives we lead and where we live are all mat­ters of emi­nent rea­son, when in fact a lot of what we do is ratio­nal­ize our lives after the fact, mis­tak­ing con­tin­gency for choice.

That said, and know­ing that dis­as­ter can and does strike along known geo­log­i­cal lines, is it sen­si­ble for me to just let things be as they are, to swal­low the expense and mourn the human suf­fer­ing when quakes strike? Why, if an ounce of pre­ven­tion can save pounds of money and sorrow?

So — earth­quake relo­ca­tion pro­grams? No. Ignore the prob­lem and let the fool­hardy and those trapped in cir­cum­stance die? No. Ignore the fool­har­di­ness and res­cue, again and again, those caught in their own short­sight­ed­ness? No.

And yes, to all three.

Perhaps we could begin by dis­in­cen­tiviz­ing con­struc­tion in quake-​​prone areas, pos­si­bly by elim­i­nat­ing tax breaks for build­ing projects. Insurance rates are already high; rais­ing them fur­ther doesn’t make much sense, and would be the kind of arti­fi­cial tweak­ing of the mar­ket that might back­fire in unpre­dictable ways.

Then there’s the pos­si­bil­ity of reduc­ing loan inter­est rates for home­buy­ers who are relo­cat­ing from quake-​​prone regions, just in the name of help­ing them make the deci­sion to move.

(Hey, I didn’t say these would all be the great­est ideas, now did I?)

Meanwhile we could look into fur­ther rais­ing pub­lic aware­ness, not just of the dan­gers of quakes and the advis­abil­ity of mov­ing; but how to han­dle a quake, how to be safer — just as the EBS has reg­u­lar tests of their broad­cast equip­ment, just as many towns in the mid­west have tornado-​​siren tests, maybe there could be earth­quake drills.

And, of course, the rest of us could do to learn how to be a lit­tle more empa­thetic toward those who are caught, despite all our care­ful plan­ning and slow, delib­er­ate depop­u­la­tion of quake-​​prone zones.

Will we ever see an end to peo­ple liv­ing where earth­quakes can strike? No. Will we ever be entirely pre­pared for dis­as­ter? No. Will we ever be com­pletely com­pas­sion­ate for and car­ing toward oth­ers? No. In a pop­u­la­tion as diverse as the human one, some things are sim­ply impos­si­ble. So there really isn’t a sin­gle, easy solution.

Well, there could be, if engi­neer­ing man­ages a mir­a­cle (of sorts). But even if some­one were to develop an archi­tec­ture that was capa­ble of sur­viv­ing mag­ni­tude 8 quakes, I would still believe it just as fool­ish to build and live in quake-​​prone areas, just as I believe — even if a can­cer vac­cine is devel­oped — that it is fool­ish to use tobacco in any form.

That’s all I was try­ing to say the other day when I com­mented on the lung can­cer vac­cine. I see its ben­e­fits — my con­cern is that it might enable smok­ers to con­tinue mak­ing poor choices, which is some­thing I think we should be on guard against.

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* I know this over­looks the increas­ing ten­sion on the fault­line. For the sake of argu­ment I’m pre­tend­ing that there is no such grad­ual daily increase in ten­sion, because for this argu­ment it’s not relevant.

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