There are no words to describe the tragedy unfolding in Haiti. From afar, we read the reports, watch the news, and shudder as we see a population in agony, in a state of complete helplessness: children without their parents, thousands starving to death, rioting youths that prey on the weak, no water, no gas, no communications. Life forced into a stop, a real apocalypse brought forth by forces way beyond our control.
Even if science can explain the causes of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, it remains quite powerless to predict when they will occur. Knowing where the fault lines are helps but it's clearly not enough. Possible relationships between the incidence of earthquakes and increased tidal activity — as, for example, during an eclipse like the one that occurred three days after the quake — and many other "predictors" won't save lives.
The Earth is an active planet, boiling on the inside, its crust made of plates that, as the pressure mounts, shift about in search of a more stable configuration. They do so without any regard for the destruction they cause in their wake. Natural cataclysms such as the Haiti earthquake and the Indian ocean tsunami of 2004, which claimed an estimated 230,000 lives, expose us to the raw reality of life on Earth: we need Nature, but Nature doesn't need us.
In our desperation, and lack of understanding, we attribute such events to "acts of God." In this, we are no different than our ancestors, who attached deities to most aspects of the natural world.
The shift, especially in the West, from pantheistic to monotheistic faith, may have removed God (for better or for worse) from close contact with humans to some ethereal omnipresence detached from everyday reality. But we still attribute what we don't understand to "acts of God", the traditional God-of-the-gaps approach to theology. If anything, these so-called acts of God show more indifference than commitment.
It is horrifying to witness the cruelty — and, why not say it, stupidity — of those claiming to be men of faith, such as Pat Robertson, who attributed the earthquake to a punishment enacted by God because the Haitians made a pact with the devil. Cavemen would have agreed.
Within the context of this blog, the Haitian tragedy teaches at least two things: first, that science has its limits and that there is much about the world that we don't understand. Second, that life — us included — is extremely fragile and must be treasured and protected. Earth, in spite of its occasional fury, remains our only viable home. We should treat it with the respect it deserves.