Trying to control nature is a human trait, and engineers have much to say about how to do it. There will be many lessons drawn from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, but one issue that should receive greater attention is the failure of land-use rules to protect coastal communities. It would be surprising if this factor were overlooked, given how much thought is devoted to sustainability and preserving nature, not to mention how much is already known about the way population density increases the destruction caused by tidal waves. Plainly, better land-use rules could have saved lives and property.
Asia’s island nations, such as Indonesia, are especially dependent on their coastal zones. Most people living on the coasts are poor and unlikely to stay if they are forced to move inland. Japan, by contrast, has a comparatively affluent population crowded onto a small land area. Its citizens are known for their love of nature and the sea, and they now are paying a high tuition to learn about the limits of engineered solutions.