Tuesday, May 18, 2004

We're all going to die

I've just met a lovely man who works for the US Geological Survey. Given his profession, it's unfortunate that the best way I can think of describing him is "down to earth". Still, he had some interesting news for those of us living, as I do, in the Bay Area. We're all going to die.

California is a state fascinated by its own future demise. Hollywood routinely offs itself, taking the rest of Los Angeles with it, and over the past two years, I've watched San Francisco flood, fry, and get stomped all over by a big green man. These cinematic flights of fancy are, of course, displacements from the very real earthquake - the Big One - waiting to shake the Bay Area to bits. There's a very good map in which our future and our local fault lines are laid bare. And with the map comes a prediction.

The folk at the USGS tell us that the probability that an earthquake greater than the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, which registered 6.7 on the Richter scale, will hit the Bay Area in the next 30 years is about 2/3. What's interesting about this is not the probability, but the time scale. Thirty years seems a little arbitrary. But Paul, my new seismologist friend, shared the thinking behind this choice of time frame: "Thirty years is the length of a mortgage, and we wanted a time reference that was meaningful to people."

There are baroque dissertations to be written about this - time's elasticity before capital, the social construction of impending doom, the presumptive home ownership of the USGS' audience, etc etc etc.

For now, my main concern is to finish this post as quickly as I can.

You never can tell.

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