BOOK REVIEW: "Apocalypse: What Disasters Reveal" by Junot Diaz [Boston Review] May/June 2011
Originally published in:
By Junot Díaz
What Disasters Reveal
On January 12, 2010 an earthquake struck Haiti. The epicenter of the quake, which registered a moment magnitude of 7.0, was only fifteen 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, three 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 James Berger reminds us in After the End, apocalypse has three meanings. First, it is the actual imagined end of the world, whether in Revelations 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 March 11 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.
Apocalyptic catastrophes don’t just raze cities and drown coastlines; these events, in David Brooks’s words, “wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done. They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities.” And, equally important, they allow us insight into the conditions that led to the catastrophe, whether we are talking about Haiti or Japan. (I do believe the tsunami-earthquake that ravaged Sendai this past March will eventually reveal much about our irresponsible reliance on nuclear power and the sinister collusion between local and international actors that led to the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe.)
Becoming a ruin–reader might not be so bad a thing. It could in fact save your life.
If, as Roethke writes, “in a dark time, the eye begins to see,” apocalypse is a darkness that gives us light.
But this is not an easy thing to do, this peering into darkness, this ruin-reading. It requires nuance, practice, and no small amount of heart. I cannot, however, endorse it enough. Given the state of our world—in which the very forces that place us in harm’s way often take advantage of the confusion brought by apocalyptic events to extend their power and in the process increase our vulnerability—becoming a ruin-reader might not be so bad a thing. It could in fact save your life.
So the earthquake that devastated Haiti: what did it reveal?
Well I think it’s safe to say that first and foremost it revealed Haiti.
This might strike some of you as jejune but considering the colossal denial energies (the veil) that keep most third-world countries (and their problems) out of global sightlines, this is no mean feat. For most people Haiti has never been more than a blip on a map, a faint disturbance in the force so far removed that what happened there might as well have been happening on another planet. The earthquake for a while changed that, tore the veil from before planet’s eyes and put before us what we all saw firsthand or on the TV: a Haiti desperate beyond imagining.
If Katrina revealed America’s third world, then the earthquake revealed the third world’s third world. Haiti is by nearly every metric one of the poorest nations on the planet—a mind-blowing 80 percent of the population live in poverty, and 54 percent live in what is called “abject poverty.” Two-thirds of the workforce have no regular employment, and, for those who do have jobs, wages hover around two dollars a day. We’re talking about a country in which half the population lack access to clean water and 60 percent lack even the most basic health-care services, such as immunizations; where malnutrition is among the leading causes of death in children, and, according to UNICEF, 24 percent of five-year-olds suffer stunted growth. As the Haiti Children Project puts it:
Lack of food, hygienic living conditions, clean water and basic healthcare combine with epidemic diarrhea, respiratory infections, malaria, tuberculosis andÂ HIV/AIDS to give Haiti among the highest infant, under-five and maternal mortality rates in the western hemisphere.
In Haiti life expectancy hovers at around 60 years as compared to, say, 80 years, in Canada.
Hunger, overpopulation, over-cultivation, and dependence on wood for fuel have strained Haiti’s natural resources to the breaking point. Deforestation has rendered vast stretches of the Haitian landscape almost lunar in their desolation. Haiti is eating itself. Fly over my island—Hispaniola, home to Haiti and my native Dominican Republic—as I do two or three times a year, and what you will see will leave you speechless. Where forests covered 60 percent of Haiti in 1923, only two percent is now covered. This relentless deforestation has led to tremendous hardships; it is both caused by and causes poverty. Without forests, 6,000 hectares of arable land erode every year, and Haiti has grown more vulnerable to hurricane-induced mudslides that wipe out farms, roads, bridges, even entire communities. In 2008 four storms caused nearly a billion dollars in damage—15 percent of the gross domestic product—and killed close to a thousand people. The mudslides were so extensive and the cleanup so underfunded that much of that damage is still visible today.
In addition to resource pressures, Haiti struggles with poor infrastructure. Political and social institutions are almost nonexistent, and a deadly confluence of political instability, pervasive corruption, massive poverty, and predation from elites on down to armed drug gangs has unraveled civic society, leaving the majority of Haitians isolated and at risk. Even before the earthquake, Haiti was reeling—it would not have taken the slightest shove to send it into catastrophe.
All this the earthquake revealed.