Article Image

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: What one man saw and learned

Written by Subject: Politics: General Activism
On April 18, 2006, San Francisco will commemorate the centennial of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, an event that leveled that city. The number of people who died has never been more than estimated. The other loses of various kinds ran into what today would be billions of dollars.

On that first day this photo was taken from the St. Francis Hotel, showing the city in flames. Less than 24 hours later the St. Francis would also have been gutted.

Behind that crumbling facade of human invention stood a man with an active, analytical mind. One man taking action would change what others refused to see because of those tragic days. Arthur C. Pillsbury would capture in film a lesson that would change all of our lives. The sound and sight of a city burning awakened him to a human truth.

The accompanying photo went out around the globe, carrying the enormity of the event to human eyes. As catastrophic as that event was it vanishes into nothingness compared to the specter we face today from our own government.

Some disasters are natural; some happen because of what we fail to understand.

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire was an event that began as a natural disaster. The plates of the Earth slipped, readjusting themselves and for hundreds of miles the resultant impact was felt. But that devastation and loss passed the boundaries of what is natural, multiplied by the corruption of San Francisco's government.

San Francisco had no disaster plan because the corrupt city administration was far more interested in continuing to enjoy the graft and privileges that come with power. Emergency workers were untrained; the preparations that had long been asked for had never been enacted. Many buildings blown up to create fire breaks simply burst into flame, spreading the conflagration and destruction. Both looters and the innocent were gunned down by the military contingent that would never be held accountable. The corrupt officials also evaded liability.

Accountability is something government learned to avoid early on.

San Francisco survived. Eventually sanity returned and the people came together to rebuild. Sometimes even in the face of completely incompetent care the patient lives.

The image above was taken by Arthur C, Pillsbury on that first day. It was a day that changed his life's focus.

Pillsbury had just left his job as the photojournalist at the San Francisco Examiner to start his own photography business, the Pillsbury Picture Company, a month before. For the next weeks he caught the immediacy of events as people struggled to survive and save what they could from the consuming flames. His developing facility, located in Oakland, was the only one functioning. Orders poured in from across the globe.

Later the same year he used the profits from the San Francisco photos to achieve a long time goal and bought the Studio of the Three Arrows in Yosemite.

Pillsbury was an engineer who majored in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford He had invented a specimen slicer for the microscope and circuit panorama camera before leaving college. He was not the kind of guy to settle for systems and tools that did not work as expected.

In Yosemite he found other systems that were failing to do their jobs.

The Cavalry, then in charge of the Park, had long made a practice of mowing the meadows to provide fodder for their horses. Pillsbury noticed that the number of wild flower species was decreasing every year in those areas and also that the Cavalry was not concerned. So, applying his skills as an inventor he built the first lapse-time camera to be used with plants, producing the first motion picture image of a wild flower gracefully raising its head to the sun. By than he had been showing and narrating nature films for two years

Now the wild flowers could speak for themselves.

That first lapse-time movie was made to persuade those in power to do the right thing and stop the mowing and move towards conservation.

Arthur C. Pillsbury believed that all people need is the truth. If they saw the reality, he believed, they will choose to do the right thing voluntarily. He was right about most people, most of the time.

After seeing the film those in power stopped the mowing the same day. The year was 1912.

Most of us do the right thing if we know what that is. But sometimes failing to do the right thing is not a mistake; sometimes there is another agenda. Pillsbury assumed that when those in power must be mistaken or lack understanding or simply be too lazy to care. Those were possibilities that made sense to him; but that was an incomplete understanding. When those in power are acting on another agenda they cannot be changed with the truth.

The photo Pillsbury took that you see here, one of hundreds, shows both the power of nature unleashed on a city and the power of corruption by government unchecked. Most people did not understand the risk they faced, having delegated that work to the city government.

Pillsbury learned one essential lesson from what he observed. He decided to make sure that the people themselves had direct access to the information they needed. In 1912 he invented the lapse-time camera to connect people to the world of wild flowers, which had been overlooked even by such conservationists as John Muir. Muir's energies were focused on saving the Hetch Hetchy, a battle he lost.

Pillsbury kept working. He began lecturing and showing his motion pictures. Eventually he would speak at every major town forum and every university of note, including MIT. He expanded his lectures every year, adding new films and insights. He was determined that the miracles of the natural world be understood, that their truth be accessible to everyone.

In 1927 Arthur Pillsbury completed the invention of the microscopic motion picture camera. Seeing the world beyond the scope of the human eye awakened people to another aspect of nature. After that time there was an explosion in related research.

Pillsbury went on to build the first X-ray motion picture camera and the underwater motion picture camera opening up more new vistas. Pillsbury refused to patent his inventions. He wanted their use to become common to all of us. He had solved the problem he identified during those hideous days when San Francisco burned.

Arthur C. Pillsbury died in Oakland in 1946. The scope of human vision had expanded, thanks to his inventions and tireless lecturing. He had made nature visible as it had never been before but that was not enough. He had not calculated for the impact of those greedy for money and power.

Government had not changed; it continued an upward trend for control coupled with the corruption. Those who profited through generations came to accept this as their prerogative.

We need to see government for what it is; a system that has been converted from service provider to wealth source for those who control it.

Disaster is endemic to all politics and for the same reasons. Coupling a lack of accountability with the temptation to take always draws those inclined to steal.

Katrina has illustrated just how bad it can be within our own shores; Iraq has demonstrated how bad America can be when the tools of corruption are applied internationally. These are not examples of incompetence, rather they illustrate sophisticated schemes for converting the institutions of government into profit centers for those holding power.

Government is efficiently doing exactly what those in power want it to do.

Our Founders did not expect this government to last 20 years. They viewed the government they established as a kind of model needing beta testing, expecting it to operate within a set of defined and limiting principles.

Government is not supposed to be doing anything we can do ourselves. In the Bill of Rights Numbers 9 and 10 make that clear. So why did government steadily take over jobs being handled privately?

For the same reason bank robbers rob banks. That is where the money is.

We are unused to the idea that we can examine government and change the tools we use to carry out what we want done. But that right is ours whenever we choose; that is enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.

The present state of government would have shocked our Founders.

Consider what life looked like to Founders at the turn of that century.

Our Founders lived and died in a world of small shop owners, farmers, and craftspeople. Homes and businesses provided for their own needs. Innovation came with its own rewards and problems and people learned by seeing what worked and what didn't. That is the classical form for the transmission of human wisdom, used even by chimps with no governmental intervention.

The tools for government the Founders assembled assumed a population that controlled most of the infrastructure directly through town government and through the people's power of purchase. Corporations did not exist in their present form. Our Founders failed to see the ramifications of allowing legislation that brought the actions of individuals under the control of government. They were imperfect as are all of us. They did not hand us a finished product but one that needed to be tested and repaired.

But some things they did right.

Until the end of the Nineteenth Century all school children studied the Bill of Rights and read the Federalist Papers. They knew, therefore, what their rights were supposed to be. Understanding the operating principles, as we can see, is a critical factor.

When people know it is much harder to delude them. But politicians were persistent. They had a lot to gain.

Katrina illustrated a lot of things about government today. It took a week from the time the storm hit to announce plans for redevelopment; people were still awaiting emergency help but 'gentrification' of the area was already planned. Today families who have tried to return have been refused access to their homes and property. If you watch what those in power do, instead of believing their rhetoric the truth seeps through. Government consumed through taxes the resources that should have protected New Orleans.

What has been proved is that Americans would have been better served to keep the FEMA money within local areas to fund local emergency services. Because every level of government above the local was more corrupt in New Orleans last year there was none of the oversight residents expected and believed they had paid for. Those funds went into other pockets.

Big government did not come into existence because the people could not find ways to handle their problems as the country grew and the complexity of their society increased. It came into existence because those in government were greedy and the citizens were both too trusting and did not understand that government is just a contracting service center; that knowledge had been withdrawn. .

So what can we do to clean up this mess?

Their system has been designed to create our perpetual and inescapable dependence. We can change that.

Get off the Grids – there are a lot of them and they include energy, oil, credit, the monetary morass, our health needs and so on. The good news is that this can be done. The means are out there, waiting our use. Despite the persistent and devious attempts to keep us nailed in place human innovation has made the exits available and affordable.

That is probably hard to believe, but it is true. The depth and scope of human innovation and our ability to work together can solve problems that would destroy lesser species. That points us back to a world that would have made more sense to our Founders, one where community and conscience are central.

Organize Locally – Many of the organizational tools we need already exist and have been in place for generations.

The original plan was built on the idea of communities working together to ensure their needs were met. In the last 200 years Americans have learned how to work together on the local level. They can apply those skills to new tasks.

Most of us spend far more time working in the Little League, Lions Club, Elks, Rotary, Soroptomists, churches, and other groups that spend their time doing good than we do paying attention to government anyway. You often see this criticized as a cause of the problem. Actually, it shows that most of us know what really matters by voting with our own time and resources when confronted with the morass of government.

The same organizations that help the homeless, funded locally and staffed with volunteers, can undertake the other work we need done to ensure the continuation of the social safety nets we all want in place.

Build Coalition – When you look at the distrust and resistance that came with the team mentality of politics you have to wonder why it mattered in the first place. People registered as Democrats, Republicans, Green, or Libertarian who focus on making their communities better have more in common with each other than they do with those in positions of power within their political parties. All politicians, with just enough exceptions to prove the point, are more vested in acquiring power and cash than in eliminating the means by which power and cash are accumulated.

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire shattered lives, destroyed property, and raised a challenge to the people of San Francisco that they heard and answered. We need to remember that. Today's challenge is far greater but despite the predations of government and their core constituency, mega corporations, we have many more resources in the battle we face than did our Founders. Generations of American innovation is there, like a vast and untapped bank account, ready to work.

The greedy already know what the real game is. It has been going on for a long time. The rest of us need to get busy making sure that alternatives are available.

Once you see the Emperor's new clothes there is no going back.

Disasters of the natural kind happen. But we don't have to accept human government as an act of God, we can change course.

The American Revolution has taken a hiatus. Ours started in 1775 with the Shot Heard Round the World on April 19th.. That revolution, intended to replace government by monarchy by governance through the tools chosen and controlled directly by the people, remains to be finished.

We, the people, retain the right to change government to secure our inherent rights and together, moving past the chasms that divide us, it can be so. That was the original vision for America. It is time to finish what well intended people began.

Arthur C. Pillsbury would be glad we figured it out.