Force of nature will always rule

To suggest that good might come out of the greatest natural tragedy for decades may seem perverse if not insensitive but, even as desperate efforts continue to protect survivors of the tsunami, lessons must be learned and applied.

Standing out, and humbling politicians in all Western countries, is the scale of the public's immediate response. We have become so accustomed to being cynical about the selfishness of modern society that such universal evidence of the warmth of the human spirit in the face of tragedy came as a pleasant and necessary reminder. It certainly surprised the politicians who, in country after country, were forced to increase the sums pledged from public funds to keep pace with the popular response. Now is the time to acknowledge the huge potential of public altruism and to respond to the less publicised needs of the millions suffering in the Sudan and the Congo.

Whenever we criticise the superficiality and intrusiveness of television today we need also to recall its immense potential for good. It was the universality of the images in front of us on the screen that shocked and touched everyone. Interestingly some of the grainy amateur video coverage of the waves was the most moving of all, rather than the professional reportage of the aftermath. The dilution of the impact of television as a consequence of the increase in available channels is a visible fact but this disaster has uniquely led all news bulletins for the best part of three weeks.

Though lacking the universality of this coverage and its effect, other television programmes have had a similar impact. One recalls Michael Buerk's reports from Ethiopia which led to the Band Aid campaign. It does not have to be news reportage. I still remember vividly the impact of Ken Loach's film, "Cathy Come Home" forty years ago, which brought Shelter into being as a campaigning charity for the homeless. On the morning after its first showing shattered people in office after office discussed it and debated what could be done.

More recently the coverage of the Kurds being forced onto the freezing mountains of northern Iraq moved the public into a spontaneous response. I recall going to the Armley post office the morning after to buy stamps and queueing behind an elderly lady who simply asked the clerk, "Is this where you give money for the Kurds?" I doubt if she had heard of Kurds before the television broadcast, and I doubt whether she could really afford very much, but she had been moved by what she saw, and wanted to help.

The havoc caused by the tsunami has also demonstrated the vital importance of international co-operation and co-ordination. It is a timely reminder that a strong and effective United Nations is crucial. On my electoral missions around the world I have worked with a number of logisticians and have come to realise what a specialised - and often eccentric - breed they are. One French colleague is impossible to work with but I always ask for him when I have the opportunity. His ability to analyse a vast area of chaos and, within days, to produce a list of requirements for an infrastructure and an orderly programme is remarkable. Fortunately the UN possesses a number of such experts.

The final lesson to be learned is that, however powerful man believes himself, nature always has the last word. It is natural, immediately after such a devastating event, for governments to talk of the possibility of installing an early warning system for the future, but cool heads need to consider carefully all the implications. It would, alas, be very easy to commit billions of dollars on a highly sophisticated system of sensors in the Indian ocean which, given the lifestyle of those who live on the ocean's edge, may not be sufficiently effective against a natural phenomenon which, happily, occurs but rarely.

This may sound harsh, but it may well be the reality. I look forward to seeing the scientific assessments.

There is in any case a certain amount of hypocrisy in awaiting a catastrophe before committing resources to the prevention of its occurrence. The overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion is that the consequences of global warming will be disastrous, particularly in the sort of low lying coastal areas that have been clobbered by the tsunami. The key difference is that global warming is a man made danger and is capable of being ameliorated by united governmental action. There are precious few signs that western governments are prepared to risk electoral unpopularity by attempting to persuade the public of the impending consequences and of the need to support draconian policies that inevitable impinge on our consumer driven lifestyles.

The vivid picture of the tsunami on our television screens is that nature retains its authority, with a sublime contempt of the consequences for human society. Mere human beings, with all their apparent strength and its state of the art technology, are but puny mortals in the face of such cataclysmic events. We confront ecological imperatives at out peril. If the tsunami forces us to face this unpalatable fact, and to act on it, then we might have a chance of saving even more than the hundreds of thousands of lives tragically lost around the Indian ocean.

10 January 2005