The immense human tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is just starting to fade from the headlines. The crisis of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility is at a plateau, but still far from resolved.
As I reflect on the enormity of what happened on the other side of the ocean we share, I see some cause for my usual Cassandra-esque blend of gloom and repressed rage tinged with the darkest glimmers of optimism, some small bright linings to the heavy smog.
First, the prevailing winds. While there does seem to be radiation coming to ground on Japan, most of it is blowing to sea. That’s the half-full. The half-empty is that… it’s going to sea. Yes, as long as there are no major fires like Chernobyl, it shouldn’t be enough to pose an immediate threat to human health, at least in the short term. But how will it affect small sea life (algae, krill, etc.) and the bigger things that feed on that and might concentrate it?
And the silvery glimmer… this was a wake-up call about Black Swan events and nuclear power plants. In the last several years, I’ve been discouraged to see more greenthinkers turning to nuclear power as an option to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Not only did they seem to be overlooking the high carbon price we pay to get the damnable things built out of concrete and keep them operational (and we still don’t know exactly what it will take to decommission them since we don’t have a good way of doing it yet), but they apparently forgot a basic tenet of the Precautionary Principle – if the outcomes of a mishap are intolerable, even if the perceived likelyhood of such a mishap is small, just don’t do it. “If the Japanese can’t build a safe reactor, who can?“ James Lovelock, Stewart Brand, et al. – what do you have to say for yourselves now?
Next, all that other stuff. Videos show the tsunami grabbing and tossing things – heck, even the little one that tore through Santa Cruz harbor did that – and as it receded it pulled lots of those big and small things out to sea. Now, my students in the Cabrillo Sustainability Council have been planning an event focusing on plastic waste and its impact on our oceans, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the gyre in the Pacific that lead to the formation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The big ocean current comes right off northern Japan, and moves across the central Pacific, and that’s where things that float just get stranded in the doldrums. Affluent, convenience-minded Japan had an awful lot of plastic to go around. How much is this adding to our already awful mess in the middle of the mighty Pacific, and how will that affect marine ecosystems?
Finally, there are the economic ripples that will spread from this latest shock. In our globally interconnected system, the disruption to Japan’s mighty industrial output is going to cause shivers and shudders worldwide. Our ridiculously long and convoluted supply chains will experience gaps, though I’ll admit that they’re actually embedded in networks that provide some resilience – if you can’t get your widget from Japan, if you look around you can probably get one from India or Belgium or Argentina or Singapore or… Now, economists say Japan’s economic woes won’t be big enough to derail overall global growth, especially when they consider all the GDP boosts from reconstruction in the coming months (yet another example of the twisted logic of money culture economics – horrific disasters are good for the economy!). But I still have hope that Japan’s unexpected plunge into the Ω-phase of release and destruction in regards to their energy-intensive industrial economy might open the way for a very creative re-emergence in the α-phase. After all, one of the seminal books on permaculture philosophy – The One-Straw Revolution – was penned there back in the 1970′s, so the seed of a new approach is already present. And if permaculture gets big in Japan…
See, hope amid the rubble. It’s not all gloom and doom, all the time. As we begin the work to heal Japan, perhaps we can learn ways to heal some other world wounds, too.