Permanent crises, disaster capitalism, and kanji

The earthquake that leveled much of northern Japan on March 11 and the tsunami that followed, stresses the fragility of humanity despite modern technology. In the aftermath of a 9.0 earthquake such technology turns out not only to be a blessing as resources and aid workers can and did mobilize quickly to help the Japanese people, it also turns out to be a liability. What started out as a natural disaster has quickly turned into a manmade disaster. Several of Japan’s nuclear power plants are severely damaged and are in danger of melting down, a scenario that makes Russia’s Chernobyl incident in 1986 pale by comparison.

"But surely you agree we can do without Mother Nature?" —Monty Burns

Although information filters such as government and media blur the picture of events in Japan, it appears that the scale of the crisis might have peaked, and that a full-blown meltdown will not occur now that power has been restored. After lacking power for several days many of the reactors cores reached dangerous levels of heat without turbines to keep them cooled in large tanks of heavy water. Radiation levels in the power plants reached dangerous proportions within 24 hours, and in a fine example of Japanese kanji 50 workers at Fukushima remained behind to try and contain radiation. Soon radiation levels in surround areas reached dangerous levels, and evacuations commenced. Now there are dangerous levels of radiation and radioactive iodine showing up in food sources and the water supply. With millions of Japanese living in the streets, in tents or temporary shelters, and in the rubble of their homes, the refugee crisis alone is daunting without worrying about further consequences of long-term radiation exposure for the environment and the Japanese people.

A global conversation immediately has ensued about the safety of nuclear power even though this question has been debated since nuclear energy was first harnessed for commercial purposes. There are different positions in this debate, ranging from abolitionists of all forms of nuclear power (including weapons) to policy makers who want more use of it as part of a long-term strategy to rid human beings completely from dependence on non-renewable resources. The Japanese nuclear crisis is forcing some reconsideration of assumptions in this debate because the relationship between nuclear power our environmental concerns turns out to run in the other direction as well. In addition to being concerned about the environmental costs of nuclear power, which is not by any means an environmentally neutral form of energy conversion, we now have to be concerned about the nuclear costs of environmental imbalances.

Like BP’s Gulf oil spill in 2010, the over-compensation of technology in environmentally challenging geographies poses questions about the hubris of our technological intervention in Mother Nature. If the nuclear crisis in Japan is averted with little lasting radiation, it will be a testament to Japanese intelligence, will, and kanji. The conversation must not stop there, however. We must fit this disaster into another larger conversation about technology capabilities and environmental imbalances. In the context of Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf oil spill, and the current nuclear crisis in Japan, perhaps it is time to start asking whether our roles in these disasters can be averted in the future by taking more responsibility for our technological intervention in Mother Nature.

The fact that Japan is presently struggling with another nuclear crisis—one the U.S. made during WWII with its decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the other by its own making with a push from Mother Nature—shows that learning the hard lessons by correcting for past mistakes remains elusive in spite of our amazing technological prowess. For some strange reason, this has been a particularly hard lesson to learn for global capitalism and its apologists.