In Praise of Earthquakes

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Here is one big lie Californians tell ourselves: we hate earthquakes. 

The unspoken truth is that we love earthquakes, as well we should.

Don’t give the weather all the credit. Earthquakes are another natural phenomenon that made California great. Earthquakes play as many roles here as our finest Hollywood actors. Quakes inspire us to dream, ground us in reality, shape our culture, and bind us together.

We would be on very shaky ground without them.

Earthquakes have a reputation for destruction, but in California, they’ve often been a force for construction and progress. The disastrous 1933 Long Beach earthquake led to the creation of new building standards—that made possible the rise of modern Southern California. Before the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, the city was a struggling, corrupt metropolis. After the quake, crooks were put on trial, and the place was rebuilt into the beautiful, global city we know today. By 1911, the people who gave San Francisco a second life had taken over the entire state, establishing the infrastructure, progressive legislation, and democratic tools (like the ballot initiative) that still define public life in California. 

While the modern American economy is famously unequal—benefits go to the richest, while the costs are born by us all—the economics of earthquakes work more progressively. The damage and death tend to be limited to relatively small numbers of people and places, but the benefits of the money spent on post-quake repairs are widely distributed.

Even in bad times, the feds eagerly throw money at our state after earthquakes. Why? Because earthquakes can’t be blamed on the usual American scapegoats—the media, poor people, gays, immigrants. Fault movement is  nobody’s fault. Indeed, earthquakes are one of the few events that can convince the rest of the U.S. to feel any sustained pity for us Californians. 

At the same time, earthquakes are essential to Californians’ self-esteem—our sense of ourselves as a people apart, able to survive anything. We proudly reside on moving ground where others dare not—and this has given us the courage to live as we wish and speak our minds.  

Of course, many other places around the world—from Japan to Italy, China to Mexico, Turkey to Indonesia—can experience earthquakes even bigger and more damaging than ours. But California stands out for having built its culture on the earthquake, quite literally. 

In describing the standard motion picture, Samuel Goldwyn once declared: “We want a story that starts with an earthquake and builds up to a climax.” Hollywood has embraced the earthquake as the backdrop for stories of togetherness and romance. At the end of the romance-turned-disaster plot of the 1936 classic San Francisco, about the 1906 earthquake, Clark Gable and the rest of the cast march back into the city while singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In the popular, if tasteless, 2015 film San Andreas, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and his co-stars flirt and even make out with each other as an earthquake and tsunami lay waste to California. In our state, apparently, mass casualties are a real turn on. 

Earthquakes are often described, incorrectly, as a California curse, a fly in the Golden State soup, the dark side of a place that is otherwise sunny and bright. To the contrary, the sudden earth-shifting of quakes is essential to California’s appeal—the sense that here, everything can change in seconds. 

Our state’s great 20th century chronicler, Carey McWilliams, wrote that “the state is always off balance, stretching itself precariously” and possessing a “notorious lack of social and political equilibrium.” All our shaking was precisely what makes us special. “California is no ordinary state,” he wrote. “It is an anomaly, a freak, the great exception.”

While earthquakes reflect our unsteadiness, they also can keep us relatively sober. The idea of the “Big One”—the massive earthquake that we are told will change everything—is one of the most successful pieces of propaganda in state history. Our foreknowledge of that quake has moved generations of Californians—typically a “live in the moment” lot—to do long-term planning, reinforce and rebuild infrastructure, bolt our homes to their foundations, and prepare for emergencies well in advance. The dangers of earthquakes also prevent us from building risky buildings in risky places.

We Californians could be better prepared (only 13 percent of homeowners have earthquake insurance). But—without the prospect of big earthquakes—would our feet ever touch the ground?

Indeed, the big quakes this month near Ridgecrest provided reminders that Californians are buoyed rather than chastened by quakes. At Dodger Stadium, when the upper deck swayed, people didn’t cower in fear—they applauded, as if this were just another ride in the theme park that is California. And the game continued without interruption. 

The comedian David Spade captured the moment in a tweet: “All kidding aside. Rules for earthquakes. Stop… drop… then instagram yourself and be super dramatic. Sit back and count likes.” 

I experienced the 7.1 quake on July 5 while eating dinner at that iconic California roadside restaurant, Pea Soup Andersen’s, in the small Santa Ynez Valley town of Buellton. There, as the earthquake rolled gently through the room, a few diners said, “Wow,” and watched the chandeliers sway for 30 seconds before returning to their meals. It was a small interruption, the same as if a fire engine or a small band had passed by.

Of course, more devastating quakes have shaken us more thoroughly, and to great action. In recent weeks, while pondering our state’s failure to address our housing crisis, I’ve found myself wondering if an especially damaging quake might inspire our state and local governments to lift anti-housing regulations and allow us to build enough homes to meet our needs.

We shouldn’t pray for earthquakes as solutions for our problems. But we ought to be grateful for them. The lives of Californians are so full of disorienting change. Our neighbors may move away, and our families may leave us. But earthquakes, like the most loyal of friends, always come back to visit.

BIO: Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square

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