22 March 2011

Topical Tuesday - Man versus Nature?

I read an article titled Quake is 5th biggest, but Japan best prepared yesterday from AP Science Writers Alicia Chang And Seth Borenstein. As expected, parts of the article suggested that Japan's preparations saved them from worse damage. Other parts were not so clear. In particular, they wrote that Friday's earthquake was part of the "classic battle of Man vs. Nature".

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

Let's start with the word 'nature'. Like all words, its meaning is revealed in how it's used. And like all dictionary entries, the given definition is derived from such use.

First, we have "innate characteristics":

nature - The innate characteristics of a thing. What something will tend by its own constitution.

Of course your feet are cold and wet. That's the nature of snow.

One stray ampersand will crash the whole database. Such is the nature of xml.

That should be straightforward, but it's not the meaning we're concerned with. Another meaning is the "natural world":

nature - The natural world; consisting of all things unaffected by or predating human technology, production and design. e.g. the natural environment, virgin ground, unmodified species, laws of nature.

Forest fires can occur in nature when lightning strikes.

Thwarted by stability problems, the airplane designers studied nature to see how birds managed.

That's all I got from Wiktionary, but there's something of a corollary to the latter meaning. When we urge for an "understanding of nature" or warn against "tampering with nature", for example, we do not usually mean that it's dangerous to dig a hole or eat a berry. Rather, we mean that the natural world has a complex biological (and occasionally physical) equilibrium. I would call that 'ecological nature'.

Now, does any of that work with the phrase "man versus nature"? I think not.

The phrase likely originates from literary analysis, where "character versus nature" is a type of literary conflict. My guess is that the terminology was influenced by the heavy anthropomorphism of natural phenomena, both in the literature itself (as a creative but entirely unreal device) and in the actual belief systems associated with historical writers. When Odysseus' raft is wrecked by a storm, Poseidon is not some symbol for the dangers of sea travel, he is a willful entity that does the wrecking.

In that light, the phrase should have never left the classroom. In fact, it's a lousy term even for literature. Sure it seems to fit the type of examples we're given: Jim and Judy try to climb a mountain; a bunch of people try to colonize Mars; Hank struggles to escape the burning desert. But we're being misled by the presence of undeveloped landscapes or a struggle for survival into applying the 'nature' tag. How about a story where Jim and Judy try to find the corner of 63rd and Elm? Where a bunch of people try to build a new operating system? Where Hank struggles to open a can of beans without a can opener?

It's the same type of conflict. It's not "character versus nature" at all, and neither are the previous examples involving Mars, mountains, and desert. The real conflict is "character versus unmet goal", either one that he has chosen for himself (as with the unclimbed mountain) or one forced upon him by an immediate threat to his life (as with the unopened can of beans). The literary term is poor, and I make no apologies for the fact that my alternative is much less catchy. I'd rather be right.

But Holy Hermes, how the phrase has been appropriated! A Google search reveals:

- A slew of videos depicting people being hilariously mauled by animals. This actually comes far closer to "man versus nature" than the literary standard (although "man versus animal" would be more precise). Even so, the animal in question is rarely a willful entity that seeks to thwart its human victim. More likely it's surprised, scared, or hungry.

- More videos of pratfalls involving park-like settings or naturally-occurring objects, such as a boulder falling on a car or a boater falling into a lake. The "versus nature" designation is bunk. A telephone pole can fall onto a car and a sunbather can fall into a swimming pool. These are simply accidents that involve objects.

- Environmental topics, such as global warming. The phrase seems to be a popular for describing conflict between people who disagree about the status of the environment and/or what ought to be done about it, but that is clearly man versus man. It is simultaneously used to imply that nature is responding negatively to human efforts to better our lives, particularly anything (that they perceive as) indulgent, without regard to such relevant particulars as the release of carbon. And that's absolute rubbish. The only sane purpose of environmental management is to better our lives.

- Survival scenarios, like the television show "Man versus Wild", wherein a man is left in the wilderness and tries to improvise food and shelter until he can get back to civilization. Now let's consider the "versus" aspect more philosophically, shall we? To survive in the wild, the show's protagonist eats eggs, catches salmon, makes a kukui torch, brushes his teeth with a manzanita leaf, climbs using a vine, and makes a raft out of bamboo. Barring an attack by a wild animal (again, that would be "man versus animal"), nature is not his antagonist-- it is his greatest provider. The "antagonists" are his own body's need for food and warmth (a constant among all humans all the time) and his goal of getting back to civilization (part of the show's premise).

- Natural disasters...

... which takes us back to the AP earthquake article. And I, for one, have found nothing in the lexicon or common usage that suggests a clear meaning for "man versus nature" in the context of an earthquake. There is no fight with an animal, nobody is stuck in the wilderness, and I'm assuming (for now) that we do not believe in a God of Earthquakes. So what do Chang and Borenstein-- and others who use the phrase in regard to natural disasters-- mean?

Our only remaining baseline is the literary term, which equates generally to "man versus unmet goal", with the particular goal (in some instances) of surviving an immediate threat to one's life. Not only do both interpretations stink, but the AP writers seem to have conflated them.

Japan, indeed, has made it their goal to construct for earthquake survivability. But life is not a narrative. A "character versus unmet goal" story has a beginning and an end; it presents a challenge to the character; and it describes events relevant to that challenge. Chang and Borenstein would have us believe that they are describing a bit of reality that matches this pattern, but they're full of crap. What they've done is cherry-pick to give the appearance of such a narrative.

"Japan has the strongest building standards in the world for withstanding earthquakes. It trains and prepares more for them...

And still the result was devastating."

Are you seeing it yet? Consider the tremendous challenge of the space race in the 1960's. That was life, that was reality, and that was a bunch of engineers working toward a presented goal. One could pick out a reasonable beginning and end, call it a narrative, and say that NASA "won" because they succeeded in landing a man on the moon.

But here's the kicker: Japan never set out with the goal of suffering zero deaths from an 8.9 earthquake 80 miles off its eastern shore. The event was unpredicted and unpredictable. It is neither a cause nor a result of Japan's earthquake preparedness (and, it should be noted, the worst damage was from the tsunami). The two do not constitute a narrative, and certainly not a contest; and it would be wrong--nay, contemptible-- to declare a winner.
"In the classic battle of Man vs. Nature, Nature won again."

Because people died? Chang and Borenstein, you have my contempt. To say nothing of kicking a people while they are down, this is an absolute fallacy. It makes as much sense as observing that a society has built hospitals, and then declaring them "losers" after a massive meteor impact because those hospitals can't bring back the dead. Unpredictability is not futility.

From the tone and theme, they should have flipped the article's title to read Japan best prepared, but Quake is 5th Biggest. The writers take pains to contrast Japan's preparedness with that of Haiti, and imply some kind of parallel to the comparative magnitude of the two quakes. They select the following quote:
"Nature can always throw an event at us that exceeds what we've designed for."

That's some strong personification. There's the vague implication that if you do more to protect against disaster, "Nature" responds with something unexpected. I'm suddenly haunted by visions...

... Hank made sure he had snow tires and chains, and drove very carefully through the pass. But the snow loosened a boulder, which fell on his car and crushed him. "Nature won again."

... Judy exercised regularly and stuck to a healthy diet, determined to avoid heart disease. But at the age of forty, she lay dying of cancer. "Nature won again."

... Phil's team had reached the summit of Everest, and returned, without loss. But he only thought he'd won. One week after returning home, Phil was bitten by a rattlesnake and died. "Nature won again."

Perhaps Chang and Borenstein would say that they only wished to express respect, or perhaps reverence, for the power of nature. But I say again: in this context, it is wrong. Such an attitude should be confined to the realm of biology and ecology, where the actions of man directly interact with a complex equilibrium. And I say again: Nature is a not a willful entity. The shifting of tectonic plates does not respond to our efforts to survive them; they are not an antagonist; and it is a gross disservice to measure human effort against the magnitude of such forces.

- J


Hart Johnson said...

Oh, interesting case you make Jason. I agree with a number of your points. I DO think though, of the 'man versus nature' statement as 'man versus the force of nature'--it isn't that nature has anything personal against anyone, but that nature is so powerful, that sometimes it does stuff we can't handle (or have to fight really hard to handle).

I agree that the article could have rephrased... maybe SHOULD HAVE... "Though Japan best prepared nation, this 5th largest earthquake and coinciding tsunamis were just too much for the measures taken"... or something... though the art of the headline has a 7 word limit if you want people to remember it and repeat it after just one viewing.

Probably the accurate statement would be 'preparedness of man versus power of natural event'... (though then we'd have to expand those seven literary themes into many many more, eh? *wink*)

Sue said...

I'd have got annoyed at the words "classic battle of Man vs. Nature". The Japanese building engineers didn't prepare for a battle AGAINST nature, but were working WITH the forces they know are there. They used the wisdom of experience and the best projections to adapt buildings appropriately. A bit like the saying (that I hope someone can quote properly) A strong man is one who, like the bamboo, bends with the wind. There's an acceptance of inevitability, not force or aggression.

Jayne said...

Excellent points. Loved the way you wrapped this up. What I don't understand, though--and this may sound naive--how is building nuclear power plants along a major fault line working with nature? I think that's messing with nature.

JasonD said...

Hart Johnson said... '' I agree that the article could have rephrased... maybe SHOULD HAVE... "Though Japan best prepared nation, this 5th largest earthquake and coinciding tsunamis were just too much for the measures taken"... or something... though the art of the headline has a 7 word limit if you want people to remember it and repeat it after just one viewing.''

Obviously I did a bad job on that point. To wit: The original title would be perfect as is, had the article been written by someone with elementary cognitive skills. My "alternative" was for the wet slop that was actually written.

Hart Johnson said... '' Probably the accurate statement would be 'preparedness of man versus power of natural event'...''

Better, because it doesn't conflate a natural disaster with nature as an entity. But I still don't like it.

Consider this scenario: Jill has a mid-size passenger car. There is soccer practice today, which will be attended by Jill's three children in addition to her neighbor's two children. The car will not carry that many, so Jill and her neighbor take two cars.

Does it make any sense to speak of "Jill's vehicle capacity versus the power of soccer practice attendance"?

The situations are perfectly similar. The Japanese want their buildings to be as sturdy as possible; Jill wants a vehicle that holds as much as possible. There is no theoretical upper limit, but both are constrained by finite resources. After some bad earthquakes, the Japanese might decide to upgrade their buildings; and after some capacity shortages, Jill might decide to buy a bigger vehicle.

Fast forward six months, and Jill has a van. She now drives all five kids to soccer practice. One day, her cousin across town calls to say that she's getting rid of an old recliner and sofa-- Jill can have them for free if she likes, but she has to pick them up today. Jill drives over and takes the recliner; she leaves the sofa, because it won't fit in her van, and she hasn't time to arrange for a larger vehicle.


JasonD said...

Again, everything that can be correctly said about the earthquake preparedness can be paralleled to Jill's situation.

a) Jill is better off because her van could at least carry the recliner.
b) Japan is better off for the preparations they do have.

a) Jill's van is short of ideal; she didn't get the sofa.
b) Japan's preparations were short of ideal; people died.

a) "The van" is not synonomous with Jill's ability to move things. She might carry bigger stuff by renting a truck. Conversely, she might not be able to carry anything at all if she has to be at work all day. A huge variety of circumstances come into play, not just the size of the cargo.
b) "Japan's construction standard" is not synomous with Japan's capacity to deal with an earthquake. A huge variety of circumstances come into play: The availability of international aid; the location of the quake, particularly in regard to the generation of tsunamis (bad luck in this case); unpredictable effects, like a damaged reactor core (more bad luck); the time of year (good luck in this case, I think, compared to mid-winter); the time of day; the population density of the affected region; the presence of foreshocks that might give warning; etc., etc., etc.

a) It makes absolutely no sense to refer to "the power of the furniture versus Jill's cargo capacity"
b) It makes absolutely no sense to refer to "The power of the natural event versus Japan's preparedness"

These things do not have "power versus"--

Scientifically speaking, one could argue that furniture has power because it has gravitational potential energy, stored chemical energy, etc.; and Jill's van might have some generally defined upper limit that compares to such measurements (e.g., its mass), but even that is misleading (a small mass might have excessive length; a large mass might be deliverable in two trips). And in no way is such 'power' an adversary; to say that the power of the furniture defeated Jill's shipping ability (again, remembering that Jill's ability is not even synonomous with her van's capacity) would be silly.

Scientifically speaking, one could argue that an earthquake has power because it is measurable on the ricther scale; and Japan's buildings might have some generally defined upper limit that compares to such measurements (e.g., a building constructed to withstand an 8.8 quake), but even that is incomplete (a stronger quake might only damage the building without harming its inhabitants; a weaker quake can still cause fatalities via tsunamis and non-structural debris).

And lest you think I mean to impose some stilted, unnatural semantics (like 'politically correct' language), I hasten to point out that the "power versus" phrase originates in the writing of sensationalist journalism. Scientists, engineers, disaster planners, and better journalists would refer to "preparedness for the effects of a natural disaster", or specifically "preparedness for the effects of an earthquake", or if you want a scalar comparison, "structural ability to withstand magnitude x.y on the ricther scale". Also, they would refer to the preparedness of an individual, a building, or a nation, not "of man". Finally, they would recognize that outcomes are mixed; and even if they made a sweeping generalization, it would be something like "Japan had good earthquake preparations, but not for a quake of this magnitude" or maybe "Japan's building standards were successful, but their sea wall failed to protect from the tsunami". At most it's success or failure, not winning or losing, because the disaster is not an adversary.