Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fukushima and the Fragility of Modern Civilization

As a companion piece to an on-the-ground account of the Japanese earthquake we published last week, I am posting here some thoughts from our colleague Peter David Pedersen of the Tokyo sustainability consultancy E-Square Inc. He reflects on the longer-term consequences of how Japan (and the rest of the world) will change behaviors related to potentially dangerous energy sources such as nuclear power. Peter has had personal experience with censorship in the Japanese media when it comes to criticizing TEPCO specifically and nuclear power in general.

Ogoto-onsen, near Kyoto, March 18, 2011

I am writing to you from a hotel along the shore of Biwa-ko, Japan's largest lake, some 528 km west (and slightly south) of the Fukushima nuclear power station. Fresh snow is covering the landscape in what would normally be a very idyllic setting.

Right now it feels absolutely surreal, as if all the earthquake destruction in eastern Japan combined with the man-made specter of nuclear destruction were scenes out a Hollywood movie entitled "Twin Disasters." But this is no movie, and whether there will be any form of "happy" ending to the nuclear malaise remains entirely unpredictable.

The Japanese government "cannot" talk openly and honestly to the Japanese public about the potential dangers in a worst-case scenario at Fukushima, primarily because of fears of panic among the 30 million people in the world's largest metropolitan area, Tokyo and Yokohama.

Over the last 10 years or so, I have repeatedly experienced the attempts of TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Co.) to control information on nuclear power in this country. For eighteen months, from 2000–2001, I anchored the main news program at MX TV, Tokyo's local TV station, and was told by the producer that "since TEPCO is a sponsor of our program, I would prefer if you do not openly criticize nuclear power."

On another occasion, I was writing a piece for a well-known publication for 5th and 6th grade school kids on the environment. That time the chief editor told me, "TEPCO is one of the sponsors of our magazine. While I would like you to write on the environment, please don't be critical of nuclear power."

On a third occasion, not directly related to TEPCO, I was interviewed by the Yomiuri newspaper, one of Japan's top two newspapers in terms of circulation, about the 1978 demonstrations throughout Denmark against the possible introduction of nuclear power, in which I participated as a child. When the interview appeared in the newspaper, my phrase "demonstrations against nuclear power" had been altered to "demonstrations for renewable energy." This was not what I had said, and when I called the journalist in charge, he sheepishly apologized, saying, "I did not dare to write anything negative about nuclear power lest I should invite the wrath of my editor (boss)."

I feel so very sorry for the people who are, right now, sacrificing their future health, and some of them their immediate lives, working to stop the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. They may be described as "heroes"—and surely their efforts as such are heroic—but in a wider perspective they are victims of an industry in which the brainwashing of contractors and workers to believe that what they work with is safe has been pervasive.

In its entirety, the present situation in eastern Japan and the Tokyo metropolitan area has revealed the amazing fragility of modern civilization. All lifelines—water, transport, electricity, food supplies—have been severed or disrupted in eastern Japan, and Tokyo, one of the world's largest cities, was in danger of a large-scale, sudden blackout yesterday afternoon (March 17) as a cold spell of weather drove up electricity consumption close to the limit of maximum supply.

A good friend of mine, working at Tohoku University not far from the epicenter of the earthquake, called to tell how he finally, after six days, managed to leave Sendai (a city of more than 1 million on Honshu's east coast), driving to Tokyo in a 16-hour ordeal. No gasoline being available anywhere on the route, he barely managed to reach Tokyo, his gas tank drying up. More frightening than the drive, though, was how food and water were virtually impossible to obtain in the city center of Sendai.

"Emergency supplies have been distributed to the schools where tens of thousands of people take refuge, but nothing seemed to reach the city of Sendai and shelves in supermarkets were almost completely empty. For the first time, I had the feeling of a threat to my life because of an inability to buy food," he told me.

My friend made it, but older and weaker people are dying—or will die—as the crucial lifelines of a hypermodern society have been devastated.

The question, obviously, is what we can learn from this experience, not only in Japan but also in modern society as a whole. It remains to be seen whether we will truly learn anything at all. To me, there seem to be at least three major lessons. The first is the question of how or if lifestyles and values will change. The thing that the Japanese have been praised for throughout the first week of this terrible disaster has not been "technology" or "financial strength"—it has been the strong spirit, the patience, and the human qualities of the people here that have touched many around the world.

Money and shiny goods in temples of consumption have carried absolutely no value for the people here in the last week. Is there a chance that we may, now, see and act on the emptiness of useless consumerism? I hope there is a chance, although I do at the same time fear that once things settle down, Japan and the world will go on as if nothing had happened.

The second lesson is the danger of concentration of population into huge metropolises. Although the epicenter of the M9.0 earthquake was hundreds of kilometers northeast of Tokyo, the city was paralyzed, streets were clogged, subways inoperative, and phone lines dead. The staff at my office could not get home or get in touch with their family.

What if—and this could happen any day—the earthquake had hit Tokyo straight on? I have not the courage to think of the scale of disaster or the number of human lives that would have been lost. As urbanization continues at great speed in the world's population centers, the utter fragility of the 21st century megacity poses serious questions. Is there a way to answer this question in a more humane and sustainable manner than we are experiencing today? There must be.

The third lesson is the folly of making ourselves dependent on energy production from large-scale and extremely dangerous power stations, where no workable plans exist to control worst-case scenarios. Huge costs will be incurred in Japan over the next several decades to clean up Fukushima. Huge costs were incurred to build the plant in the first place. Surely this money could have been used more wisely. Hopefully, the lesson taken from Fukushima will, finally, make the idea of nonviolent, nontoxic, decentralized energy sources the mainstream policy and business choice around the world.

If we can learn the lessons, there is hope for the future.

Peter David Pedersen
Chief Executive
E-Square Inc.
Tokyo, JAPAN

[PHOTO CREDIT: Globovisión. Damaged reactor at Fukushima (CC).]


Roberto said...

"I am writing to you from a hotel along the shore of Biwa-ko, Japan's largest lake, some 28 km west (and slightly south) of the Fukushima nuclear power station."

Erm, no. Some 28 km east (and slightly north) of Kyoto. And some 528 km west (and slightly south) of Fukushima.

Evan O'Neil said...

Roberto, Thanks for pointing out that typo. It has been fixed.