Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Crisis in Japan: A Cautionary Tale

It’s impossible to look at the videos and still photos of the destruction and despair in Japan [since that country was assaulted by a 9.0 earthquake and massive tsunami last week] without feeling a deep sense of heartbreak for what people are going through. Thousands have lost everything; some have lost everyone in their families. The entire nation is speechless with grief and overwhelmed by what will be required to repair their country and carry on. And now, of course, there are the dangers of a huge nuclear disaster with the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. A “minor” disaster could destroy all or most of Japan; a major one could have a serious impact on other parts of the world, including our Hawaii and California. Any way you look at it, it’s a terrible state of affairs, one that requires considerable contemplation on our part.

Indeed, it is incumbent upon us to acknowledge the inherent lessons of this event. Not all devastating natural (or man made) disasters are equal. People got upset about the conditions in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, and after the horrific earthquake in Haiti. But the powers that be (whoever they are) are clearly not that distressed, because very little has been done to help the majority of those most affected in both of these locales. I think it’s fair to say that the reasons are similar: New Orleans is a “chocolate city” as N.O. Mayor Ray Nagin observed (and then apologized for saying, because it’s rude to imply that there’s entrenched racism in America…), and Haiti is a chocolate country. In both cases, there are also native cultures that many people disapprove of – the Voodoo element in Haiti, and the sex and music of New Orleans. In addition, the demise of Haiti would do no damage to the rest of the world, and the demise of New Orleans (while some would view it as a great loss) would not be a huge loss to most of America.

Japan, on the other hand, is the world’s third-largest economy. Even though the Japanese are Asian and were our sworn enemy in the 1940s, we and the rest of the world will overlook that, because we want to continue buying the things they make (the chips for our cell phones and i-whatevers are at stake!) and selling them the things we make. They’re a First World country and as such they must be saved. No matter what it costs the global community, and no matter what else happens in Japan, that country will rise again, because it’s an economic imperative that it does. A quick glimpse at their stock market and those around the world right now attests to this. So, while I feel terrible for the people of Japan, especially those old enough to remember World War II, I’m confident that they’ll be okay when all is said and done.

I’m less confident that they, or we, or anyone else, will come to the conclusion that nuclear power in an over-populated, over-stressed modern world is a bad idea (current protests in Germany n0twithstanding). The Fukushima plant was built in the 70s, as were a number of key plants in the U.S. and around the world. Fellow Boomers: do you recall our passionate protests against the beginnings of nuclear power? Nonetheless, it became commonplace and we stopped protesting, because we wanted the uninterrupted, unlimited comforts of richly-flowing electricity like everyone else.

Why didn’t the U.S. begin investing in solar and wind power back in the 70s? Then-President Jimmy Carter wanted to, but back then as now, Republicans didn’t see the need or value in it. (Carter had solar panels installed on the roof of the White House and Reagan angrily had them removed.) I’ve had grown-up people say to me: “But what happens when the sun stops shining and the wind stops blowing?,” as if these systems aren’t constructed with reserve components in acknowled- gment of the existence of night and periods of soft breezes (!). Is it too late for us to invest in these sensible technologies? Probably. In any case, it won’t happen on any significant scale, because President Obama supports it, and as we’ve seen, anything he supports must be thwarted at all costs by the disloyal opposition.

Personally, I believe that the extraordinary number of natural disasters worldwide over the past several years are just part and parcel of the global catastrophe predicted for the 2012 era – and as some of you roll your eyes at the mere mention of the 2012 phenomenon, let me say this: no one ever said December 21, 2012 will mark the end of the world; rather, it will signal the end of the world as we know it and a new era (low tech, peaceful, less populace) will begin. In addition, 2012 is just a touchstone point in time. We’ve been working up to this for decades, and it may take a few more decades for the end/beginning to go into full swing.

However, whether you believe in this or not (dismissing 2012 as if it were Y2K or a newspaper horoscope), know this: there are more disasters to come – natural and otherwise. Some of them governments will seek to cope with, others they will ignore. But all of them are changing the world around us in ways no one can deny. Will we be brave and innovative and wise, try to rid ourselves of dangers where we can, and acknowledge that the 21st century is not the 20th and therefore requires different responses from both individuals and nations? Unfortunately, that remains to be seen.

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