Japan has suffered a quake so powerful that — when all is said and done — we’ll likely discover that it quite literally shook the Earth slightly off its axis. Dozens of aftershocks have registered above 6.0 on the Richter Scale, and of course the country has been hit by a devastating tsunami. At least one nuclear reactor is on fire, as are countless other energy facilities. The death toll will be in the hundreds if not — God forbid — the thousands.
Despite all that, the trains in Tokyo are running again. Narita airport is allowing limited air traffic, and that includes commercial traffic. Disaster response has been orderly, up to and including finding time to formally notify the IAEA about the status of Japan’s nuclear reactors, which if Twitter is any guide seem to be holding their own when it comes to containing radiation.
This is how an industrialized society with a responsive government — and a decent civil society to keep that government responsive — handles disasters. As a small example: regulations can be onerous and often unnecessary, but everyone today is happy that Japan’s building codes are as stringent as they are. They’re why we’re not going to be talking about anything approaching the scale of devastation in Haiti. If nothing else, Japan will accept and distribute emergency aid on its own, and that’ll be that. Society won’t descend into anarchy.
In between, as we listen to commentary today about the fragility of humanity and the sublime power of nature, let’s keep in mind that the Japanese were very clearly not impotent in the face of today’s disaster. They were prepared, thanks to a stable government and civil institutions, and to long-term industrialization.
Whether those institutions can take hold anywhere — and what the prerequisites are for building them — is a different question. But that they can in some small way buttress humanity against nature’s pre-industrial fury seems undeniable, and the evidence for that is that the Ginza line is running right now.