The Cause of Earthquakes

A story reported by the BBC has four tourists — a Brit, two Canadians, and a Dutchman — on trial in Malaysia for causing an earthquake ( The four exposed and photographed themselves at one of the most holy sites in Malaysia, Mount Kinabalu. The story took me back to my graduate school days at Chicago, when I came across the following passage in Max Weber’s The Religion of China:

With regard to innovations, the manner of mining was always thought especially apt to incense the spirits. Finally, railroad and factory installations with smoke were thought to have magically infested whole areas (anthracite coal in China was used in pre-Christian times). The magic stereotyping of technology and economics, anchored in this belief and in the geomancers’ interests in fees, completely precluded the advent of indigenous modern enterprises in communication and industry. To overcome this stupendous barrier occidental high capitalism had to sit in the saddle aided by the mandarins who invested tremendous fortunes in railroad capital. The wu and the shih, as well as the chronomancers and geomancers, were relegated more and more to tbe category of “swindlers.” But this could never have come about through China’s own resources (1959:199).

What struck me twenty-five years ago and still strikes me now about this passage is how Weber skirts the real issue. Perhaps we are inclined to do likewise. On its face, the Malaysian courts are behaving irrationally. Naked tourists, even naked British tourists, do not cause earthquakes. Silly Malaysians. End of story.

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 14.50.58Back to China. As we know, high capitalism did eventually sit in China’s saddle with the result that China is now among the most polluted places on the face of the planet. Chinese authorities are now confronting this legacy. Still, it is important that we appreciate how what Weber felt was silly a century ago seems much less silly today. Communities that live off the delecate balance struck between human consumption and sustainable agriculture are inclined to count sacred the resources that high capitalism reduces to mere commodities. Of course, the earth cannot be plundered unless we deprive it of its sacredness. “For heavens’ sake, its just earth.” Right? Yet, as Weber correctly noted, depriving the earth of its sacredness is no easy matter. In this effort, just as the stoic and cynical mandarins were inclined to sell their birth-right, so today social elites must become complicit. And, as we well know, nothing destroys traditional spirituality quite as efficiently and effectively as capitalism. Just ask Weber.

So, what about the four nudists on trial? The jury is still out. And, yet, the facts are already clear. The Malaysians long ago made their peace with capitalism. Their economic welfare is now intimately connected to global trade and global tourism. There is no turning back the clock. Eventually Mount Kinabalu will be sold. It is already punctuated by hotels, resorts, andmonasteries  serving the needs (and emptying the wallets) of both western and native sacred tourists. How pleased the gods must be. No doubt the locals — kept poor and ignorant by conservative Malaysian ruling elites — genuinely believe that nudism caused the ensuing earthquake; much as conservative Christian snake-handlers and swindlers in the United States believe that 9/11 was caused by sexual misconduct. But, herein they miss the real earthquake, which may always have been the real point.

If I can make sure that the poor and ignorant folk focus on nude Europeans taking pictures at sacred sites, perhaps I can divert attention away from the real violence taking place in Malaysia where high capitalism has long been in the saddle. A century ago Max Weber missed the point. And we are again missing it today.

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