Early Sunday morning, a powerful 6.6 magnitude earthquake shook central Italy. In the 500-person town of Norcia, the tremors reduced dozens of medieval structures to rubble. Norcia’s 14th-century monastery, the Basilica of Saint Benedict, was among the buildings destroyed.
“It’s a disaster,” Pietro Luigi Altavilla, deputy mayor of Norcia, told an Italian news agency. “It was like an explosion that never ended.”
One hundred miles away in Rome, the tremors produced by the earthquake caused large cracks in monuments, most notably the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls.
This quake is the latest in a series of tectonic trembles at work in central Italy. Just a few months ago, another earthquake affecting the same region collapsed half of medieval Amatrice and claimed the lives of nearly 300.
Loss of life to natural disaster is always regrettable, but what is often is overlooked about this series of earthquakes is the loss of cultural heritage.
Cultural heritage is a blanket term, covering all manner of artifacts and monuments left by past civilizations for future generations of humankind. Many of the world’s most famous monuments are protected by the United Nations under the umbrella term “World Heritage Sites.” Significant places around the world — like the Statue of Liberty and the Pyramids of Giza — have been singled out by the U.N. for their value to human cultural history.
Much of the protection of these sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization focuses on prevention of man-made destruction, but sites are equally — or more— vulnerable to natural disasters.
While it’s easy to write off destruction of cultural heritage sites by natural disasters as inevitable or, as many Italian grandmamas would say, “an act of God,” in fact, there are many measures that can be taken to prevent this destruction. For years, UNESCO has urged local governments around the world to take steps to reinforce sites in more naturally vulnerable areas.
In other words, cultural heritage sites can be protected, but in many cases aren’t.
The importance of protecting world heritage is paramount. Just as our ancestors left these sites stable and secure, it is our current responsibility to make sure sites continue to live on. And it’s crucial to prevent disaster before it actually happens — to learn the lesson of the necessity of reinforcement structures and maintaining structural integrity of monuments only after the collapse of Old Jerusalem or Notre Dame would be a grave mistake.
In my ideal vision of the future, historical evidence of human achievement will still be standing long after we’re gone. For our children, our children’s children — even for the aliens that will surely study our barren planet 10,000 years from now.
The first step towards this future is raising public awareness and getting people to care about the earthquakes in Italy and natural disasters around the world that are causing preventable destruction. The next step is supporting UNESCO in their activism — if not for aliens, then at least for the rest of humankind.
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