Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Faulty construction...

The news in our San Francisco Bay Area has almost been eclipsed by the centennial reminding us about the Great Earthquake of 1906.

While lots has been said about what happened and about seismological risk and what if it happened again, all the experts seem to miss the reality that modern America is subsumed by a culture of prevention. Quite simply, we expect that we can prevent anything truly cataclysmic from ever happening.

Earthquake prevention in California is a case in point.

Californians expect that engineering solutions will overcome the threat of natural seismic activities. This sanguine attitude is rooted in the relatively recent rise of urban/industrial society. The resultant huge capital investments in modern cities and complex infrastructures that have made people increasingly dependent on centralized services for water, fuel, food, transportation, communication, and shelter has foster the culture of prevention.

While peril from earthquakes seldom concerned people in the rural/agrarian world, the nature of the modern city has enormously heightened the risk of ruinous loss to human life and property from natural disasters. The great earthquake that wreaked havoc on San Francisco in 1906 plainly illustrates this, and in its wake engineers and geologists developed a sustained interest in understanding seismic activity and constructing earthquake-safe buildings.

Subsequently, the study of earthquakes and understanding of aseismic building construction evolved with each new earthquake. Earthquake intensities and ground motions were measured and compared. Fallen and standing structures were studied. Chasing earthquakes became a way of life for seismologists and structural engineers alike, and gradually these science and technology experts became confident that they could make modern cities safe against tremors.

Over time, a culture of prevention emerged, one born of the confidence expressed by engineers and geologists and one sustained by those who invest in the modern city--capitalists and governing officials. And, the public at large has eagerly embraced it, their confidence grounded in their belief that people can control the natural world with science and technology.

It's a chimera, of course, but it's one humanity has embraced since the modernist era was launched during the "Age of Reason." And so we continue to build our cities and lives astride fault lines that are bound to break.

(See "Faulty Construction: Earthquakes and the Culture of Prevention")


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