People no longer regard natural phenomena as omens of doom but they may not be any more sensible, Lisa Jardine writes.
A POINT OF VIEW
By Lisa Jardine
We live in a world of immediate, global news.
We are used to turning on the radio to a report that a natural disaster has struck in some far away part of the world - a major earthquake has occurred in San Francisco, Los Angeles or Mexico City, along the San Andreas fault; a Tsunami threatens Indonesia, where four tectonic plates jostle one other off the coast of Sumatra.
The recent report of a sizeable earthquake which had rocked parts of Kent, damaging buildings and disrupting electricity supplies, was alarmingly closer to home. It was not, however, an unheard of event for the south of England.
At six o'clock on the evening of 6 April 1580, Gabriel Harvey - the self-important Cambridge Professor of Rhetoric, and friend of poet Edmund Spenser - was at the home of a gentleman friend in Essex, playing cards.
Without warning, everything around them began to rattle and pulsate. "The earth under us quaked," he reported, "and the house shaked above; besides the moving and rattling of the table and forms [benches] where we sat."
Concentrating as he was on the rather good hand he had been dealt, Harvey claims at first to have thought the effect was caused by noisy footsteps in an upstairs room. His host, however, soon came "stumbling into the Parlour, somewhat strangely affrighted, and in a manner all aghast", to tell them that he and all his servants had experienced a violent motion of the entire building.
Sending out to the nearest town, he had been informed that an earthquake had indeed taken place, causing extensive damage on either side of the English Channel.
The ladies present professed themselves "never so scared in their life". "I beseech you heartily," said one of them, "let us leave off playing, and fall a praying".
Gabriel Harvey would have none of it. In characteristically professorial fashion, he proceeded to sit the household down and give them a stern lecture on how there was always a rational explanation for alarming natural phenomena.
He denounced the superstitious riff-raff who saw in every violent storm, comet, eclipse or earthquake a divine portent of some punishment about to befall the human race. He argued - at some length - that although the earthquake was clearly an act of God, it could still be explained in purely natural terms.
Although his science was limited, he made a stab at explaining the 'exhalations of wind' from beneath the earth's surface, which had given rise to it.
Houses and cars were damaged in Folkestone
The flood of pamphlets published in London in the weeks that followed were, however, much less circumspect. Boasting lurid, attention-grabbing titles, they warned that the earthquake was a sign from God that the end of the world was at hand.
"A bright burning beacon forewarning all wise virgins to trim their lamps against the coming of the Bridegroom."
"A discourse of the end of this world: And a prayer for the appeasing of God's wrath and indignation."
In a pamphlet catchily entitled, "A warning for the wise, a feare to the fond, a bridle to the lewd, and a glass to the good" - Thomas Churchyard included a poem he had written, urging the citizens of London to prepare for the Last Judgment.
"An Earthquake came, with whirling noise as House and Tower should fall: A loving rod of threatening wrath, sent sure to warn us all."
The earthquake of April 1580 seems to have been the largest in the recorded history of seismic activity in England. Its epicentre was in the Dover Straits, and the damage it inflicted stretched from London to France and Flanders.
At Dover itself, a piece of the cliffs fell, and so did part of the castle wall. About half a dozen chimney stacks came down in London, and a pinnacle about a foot in length toppled off Westminster Abbey.
Terrified playgoers at the Curtain Theatre in Hollywell had to jump from the playhouse balconies, since "they could no way shift for themselves, unless they would, by leaping, hazard their lives or limbs".
A passenger on a boat from Dover reported that the vessel on which he was travelling had touched the sea bed five times and that the ensuing waves had risen well above the ship's mast. About 12 hours later, a tidal wave struck the coast at Dover, demolishing houses, and pulverising ships along the shore.
Contemporary accounts are as vivid as any tabloid newspaper's today.
"It chanced also, Thomas Cobhed being in the pulpit in Christ's church in Newgate market, preaching to the people, suddenly the church so shook, that out of the roof of the same fell certain great stones, by the fall whereof, a boy named Thomas Gray, apprentice to John Spurling Shoemaker, was brained, and Mabel Everet his fellow servant, was stricken on the head with a stone, being dangerously hurt, but is not dead: and a number of the people (by hasting to flee and escape away) were sore bruised and hurt, by falls and such like accidents."
More than 400 years later, eyewitness accounts of last weekend's earthquake off Folkstone read remarkably similarly.
Auguries of Armageddon
Carpenter Terry Croker, 30, was in bed when the tremor began. "Everything was quiet when all of a sudden, the walls started to vibrate," he recalls. "Then I heard this massive rumble, and all this soot and rubble started to pour out of the chimney into the fireplace in our room. I couldn't work out what on earth was going on."
No-one, however, as far as I am aware, has suggested that last week's earthquake was a warning that the end of the world is at hand.
We no longer treat earthquakes - or indeed the appearance of a bright comet in the night sky - as auguries of Armageddon, wake-up calls to humanity to correct their wayward behaviour before it is too late.
Global warming is now the threat
Scientific explanation has freed us from the bonds of superstition where such natural phenomena are concerned. Evidence painstakingly assembled by observation, over more than a century not only allows seismologists to understand - and explain to us - precisely how earthquakes happen, but also to anticipate likely future occurrences.
Neither precise measurement nor confident predictions of precise outcomes seem to be available, however, when it comes to the natural disaster the general public is most preoccupied with today - global warming.
For weeks the press has been telling us that this April has been the warmest since records began, more than 300 years ago.
"The Met Office said that temperatures during the first half of the month had been consistently two or three degrees above average, and often much more. Already this month temperatures in London have reached 80F (26.5C)," trumpets the Telegraph.
The press response to the April temperature statistics has been a predictable clamour of concern about climate change. "This is the latest in a series of statistics to bolster claims that global warming is in full swing," the Mirror tells its readers.
I hope that nobody is any longer in any doubt that global warming is a real phenomenon, and that - possibly for the first time in history - its likely calamitous consequences are of mankind's own making. But I don't personally find the tone or content of the newspaper articles helpful.
What, I want to know, am I supposed to do about it? Am I allowed to enjoy the good weather, or must I retreat in alarm into my study to await the knell of doom?
These are rhetorical questions, of course. But while we are increasingly offered any number of lurid figures and tabulated statistics about how bad things have got, I find it difficult to locate correspondingly clear tables to tell me what would constitute an effective response on my own part.
If I were to decide to enjoy the sunshine at home, and cancel all family holiday trips by plane, how many trips, by how many families, would it take to arrest the quickening pace of warming?
Some of these figures are, of course available. What bothers me is the fact that they are rarely ever there on the page alongside the prophecies of doom.
As long as this is the case, in my view, we are being barely more responsible than Gabriel Harvey's card-playing partners, rushing screaming to the top of the house to fall on their knees, in the hope of avoiding the wrath of the Almighty.
If we are going to make responsible judgments, scientifically, we need the data laid clearly before us, so that we can decide together, rationally and responsibly, how to begin to redress the damage.
A selection of your comments appears below.
I struggle to see the difference between assuming an earthquake is God's wrath and needs dealing with by prayer and assuming that our use of fossil fuels is causing global warming and needs dealing with by spending vast sums of money. It's just a different kind of assumption, that's all.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK
An interesting article, raising good points. But who, I wonder, is better placed to construct a list of recommendations such as that called for than a journalist? Perhaps the best thing to do would be to stop bemoaning the lack of one and use this excellent platform to provide on to the rest of the population!
I felt the tremor the other week, in East Sussex. It appeared to shake the room I was in twice. While I am fully aware that the movements of tectonic plates are the physical cause of earthquakes, I, like many, do not feel that it is superstitious to suggest that God may be telling us something through natural disasters. If nothing else, they are a reminder that every day we live is a matter for thanksgiving and not something to be presumed upon. The reason we don't hear "superstitious explanations" for such phenomena anymore, is because the media does not report them. That is a simple fact.
James Styles, Hastings, East Sussex
You might find more people than you think who believe the causes of "climate change" (this centuries big superstition) are man-made. A large number of scientists, for example.
I agree with that last paragraph about needing the information make the correct decision. But the facts don't sell papers (or webpages), emotion - such as excitement and fear - sell papers.
Ian Mayman, United Kingdom
The majority of people that I talk to are not convinced behind the alleged cause of global warming and see it as another tool that governments are using to raise taxes. I certainly will not be travelling any less to my villa in Spain for the time being, especially after an air show over Dalton Barracks in Oxfordshire had jets and helicopters filling the skies all afternoon on the 6th of May for the entertainment a few thousands people.
Simon Bricknell, Abingdon / Oxford / England
Any tremors felt near us will have everybody running hard - "they" insist on putting a gas pipe carrying a fifth of the UK's supply through an earthquake fault just outside Swansea, it's so unstable they won't allow blasting for fear of bringing half the mountain down, but none the less it's safe, we're told by the experts. Experts who fail to take into account a Category 1 risk zone a kilometre down the road: you'll hear the bang in London if that goes up...
Good grief how I agree with this; give me reliable peer reviewed information and correct it when it is wrong or new knowledge is found. The Internet brings a torrent of information but how are non-experts meant to distinguish between conspiracy theories and our best current scientific understanding? Just as an example if I put PV cells on my roof to generate electricity does that help? I can find people who say that the cradle to grave environmental cost of making solar cells outweighs their benefit and yet I might get a government grant for installing them! Who am I meant to believe?
David Lynch, Wantage
I don't see the point of this; it's clear from the ideas about global warming what needs to be done, both by individuals and at the national level. It's like saving money - make small savings immediately to avoid big savings later. If the media don't overstate the case - and fund-seeking academics are equally guilty - then the case is never made. Very weak and disappointing commentary.
Lisa Jardine poses a rhetorical question to good effect. There is little disagreement that the climate is changing, but more about the scale of influence of man; there is even more about what are the most feasible and effective steps to take. Lisa seems to want someone to tell her what to do. This is puzzling, as there is a wealth of information available on the internet to evaluate facts, arguments and theories and assess their plausibility.
David Devore, London
I have heard, and now read your interesting offering, to Radio 4's "A Point of View". I do NOT take your view, ridiculing the ladies who thought it wise to pray for God's protection from the AD 1580 earthquake. The judged ladies, and the pamphleteers as "superstitious riff-raff" by the self-important Gabriel Harvey, may well have, by their virtue, contributed to the salvation of England by means of these God-fearing souls, straightening out of their "crooked paths", from the terrible threat of the Spanish Armada!!!
Charles H. O'Hanlon, Preston, Lancs.
Have just listened to A Point of View "echoes of another tremor" natural disasters, presented by Lisa Jardine. What very interesting and excellent radio, thank G for someone for Radio 4 and the BBC, and after hearing this sort of broadcasting, who needs the (mostly) garbage on TV anyway?
Trevor Bagley, Ironbridge, Telford
The San Andreas Fault is along the Californian coast. Mexico City is in Mexico, a couple of hundred miles from both oceans, and about 1,550 miles from Los Angeles. Mexico City does suffer from large earthquakes, but these have nothing whatsoever to do with the San Andreas Fault, which as I hope I've made clear, is somewhere else.
Lloyd Walters, Lampeter, Wales
Many thanks for your brave ´Point of view´, broadcasted on Friday night, focusing on the global warming hysteria. It is so obvious that this topic has completely taken off from rational arguing ground and entered the heaven of self-fed media story-telling. In fact I wonder if not your enlightening comparison with the earthquake of last week and the one in 1580 could be drawn even further: If we some day get back to a sensible handling of the apparent global warming phenomenon, I suspect we might not only find that it is less of a calamity than what is now argued, but perhaps also that it is as little caused by man as earthquakes are. I believe science has a lot more to say about how the climate works.
Claes Nordén, Stockholm, Sweden
How true! The press in the UK are among the worst in Europe. What we need is not scaremongering or pious proclamations, but rational examination of the facts and enlightened argument based on those facts. Unfortunately we will get none of these from the papers (or much broadcasting)just sensationalism. Woe, woe, a thousand times woe!
David Edwards, Cardiff Wales