Dispatches from the Apocalypse

What natural disasters reveal about our planet and its destiny

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    REUTERS / Carlos Garcia Rawlins
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    REUTERS / Allison Shelley
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    REUTERS / Asahi Shimbun

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On January 12, 2010, an earthquake struck Haiti. The epicenter of the quake, which registered a moment magnitude of 7.0, was only 15 miles from the capital, Port-au-Prince. By the time the initial shocks subsided, Port-au-Prince and surrounding urbanizations were in ruins. Schools, hospitals, clinics, prisons collapsed. The electrical and communication grids imploded. The Presidential Palace, the Cathedral, and the National Assembly building—historic symbols of the Haitian patrimony—were severely damaged or destroyed. The headquarters of the UN aid mission was reduced to rubble, killing peacekeepers, aid workers, and the mission chief, Hédi Annabi.

The figures vary, but an estimated 220,000 people were killed in the aftermath of the quake, with hundreds of thousands injured and at least a million—one-tenth of Haiti’s population—rendered homeless. According to the Red Cross, 3 million Haitians were affected. It was the single greatest catastrophe in Haiti’s modern history. It was for all intents and purposes an apocalypse.


Apocalypse comes to us from the Greek apocalypsis, meaning to uncover and unveil. Now, as author James Berger reminds us in After the End, apocalypse has three meanings. First, it is the actual imagined end of the world, whether in Revelation or in Hollywood blockbusters. Second, it comprises the catastrophes, personal or historical, that are said to resemble that imagined final ending—the Chernobyl meltdown or the Holocaust or the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that killed thousands and critically damaged a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Finally, it is a disruptive event that provokes revelation. The apocalyptic event, Berger explains, in order to be truly apocalyptic, must in its disruptive moment clarify and illuminate “the true nature of what has been brought to end.” It must be revelatory.

 “The apocalypse, then,” per Berger, “is the End, or resembles the End, or explains the End.” Apocalypses of the first, second, and third kinds. The Haiti earthquake was certainly an apocalypse of the second kind, and to those who perished it may even have been an apocalypse of the first kind, but what interests me here is how the Haiti earthquake was also an apocalypse of the third kind, a revelation. This in brief is my intent: to peer into the ruins of Haiti in an attempt to describe what for me the earthquake revealed—about Haiti, our world, and even our future.

After all, if these types of apocalyptic catastrophes have any value it is that in the process of causing things to fall apart they also give us a chance to see the aspects of our world that we as a society seek to run from, that we hide behind veils of denials.

8/31/2011 11:36:55 AM

Most destruction leaves survivors. What are we doing/what can we do to prepare the survivors to live with values that allow growth without destruction? I've heard it said that it's easy to have a moment of clarity. What's hard is keeping it.

steve eatenson
8/31/2011 11:06:30 AM

Very good article. We need to decide if we want human beings to continue to survive on this earth as a species. Relevant questions are: If yes, why? If no, why not? Perhaps our extinction would be a good thing. It would end human suffering. It would end human destruction of the earth and it's other species. It would benefit the environment. If, on the other hand, we think that the special brand of love, compassion, creativity, emotion that humans are capable of is worth preserving, what are we willing to do to preserve our species? When will we start? Who is for us and who is against us? What can we do about that?

8/31/2011 10:35:36 AM

Unlike another commenter, I added another few minutes to my life by reading this excellent article. "One day something terrible will happen and for once we will heed the ruins. We will begin collectively to take responsibility for the world we’re creating. Call me foolishly utopian, but I sincerely believe this will happen. I do. I just wonder how many millions of people will perish before it does." Sadly, the human vice of distractibility takes care of all Haitis, all Londons, all Afghanistans. They come, are tsked over, contributions of money and effort are made by some, and on to the next. The Keeling Curve of CO2 not only rises, it accelerates. The Shock to change that pattern must be, not merely great, but positive. And the entire species must come away from it aware, for the first time in most cases, of what Marx called its ‘species being’, and at last learn that kindergarten lesson of sharing.

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