No, it’s not the set of some avant garde director, doing an updated version of a Beckett play. Nor, as some would have it, is it a diabolical “act of god.” Instead it’s the face of a life upturned in the most drastic of ways. Surrounding this young woman are hundreds or thousands of the just-dead, buried beneath the detritus scattered by the forces of nature, forces perfectly natural and comprehensible, and which show themselves periodically in Japan, and elsewhere too. These days, with far more humans on the planet, and our technologically instantaneous communications network, these events are no longer mysterious and hidden, but are immediately flashed around the globe. What once insulated humanity from its traumatic moments has been dissolved by the internet.
Shunted momentarily to the background, and then abruptly shoved again to the front pages, events in the middle-east carry on unabated, though having taken a sharp turn from the Twittered Jasmine Revolution of Tunisia, and the largely peaceful over-throw of Mubarak in Egypt. The youth-led wired generation there was, at least to outward semblances, victorious. In Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya the same youth-driven forces have instead met with the brutal real-politic of resident “strongmen” – Gaddafi, Bahrain’s king Sheikh Hamad bin Isa, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s Ahmadinejad, and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. Some of these are America’s supposed “enemies” while others are our firm “friends.” All of them though are resisting the Jasmine changes with the same old tools they have employed for decades: force, torture, repression. In the case of our “friends” this is nothing that we haven’t known about, and tacitly approved – selling weapons, surveillance equipment, or sometimes renting out their torture facilities, and of course in most cases, buying their oil.
Since the conclusion of World War Two American policy in the middle-east has always been twisted and warped by our car-oil fetish, with one side of our mouth talking “democracy and freedom” and the other doing “pragmatism.” This had gone on previously, though masked by British and French and Italian colonialism. At the end of the war, those fell apart and America stepped into the breach – a vacuum further complicated by the new presence of Europe’s off-shored bigotry problem in the form of Israel. Since then Washington’s policies have been a hypocritical mixture of the usual American “idealism” of preaching “democracy and freedom” while pursuing actual policies which involved everything from subverting and overthrowing legitimate elections, as in Iran in 1952, to simply going to bed with whatever “strongman” suited our cold-war/oil-addiction policies. For more than half a century we largely supported such sorts, supplying them with arms, “intelligence,” and tacit and overt support of behaviors which blatantly and obviously – especially to the locals – contradicted our idealist claims. Sprinkling our military liberally throughout the area, we generated a lot of well-deserved hatred. And now, our vaunted, multi-billion dollar “intelligence community” has once again been caught pants down, utterly blind-sided by events of the last few months. Washington races to keep up, trying to tally the “pragmatic” costs of supporting or not, this or that Twitter revolution, calculating whether to support, deny, or simply be silent in the face of the upheavals brought about by that invention of the American military, the internet, and its subsequent “social networking” tools which turn out to have an impact far from just cluing friends into the next party.
In a similar manner was another miscalculation made, one not against the behavior of other men and political mechanisms, but against nature. Since the early 60’s, when plate tectonics as a science developed, and our understanding of the structure of the earth’s crust became clearer, events such as cataclysmic volcanic eruptions, Vesuvius in ancient days, or Krakatoa more recently, or major earthquakes, such as that which leveled Lisboa in 1755 or the 9.5 Richter scale one which hit Chile, or the 9 Richter scale one which has just occurred in the trench off the Japanese major island of Honshu, we have known that these are not “acts of god,” but rather the explicable physical mechanics of our planet, with its hot liquid core, and a shifting, constantly changing outer crust. We now know much of the mechanical logic of these movements, of their potential and actual strengths, and of their inevitability. And yet, knowing this, we have continued to build highly complex, and dangerous systems – whether they are dams which might rupture and drown a city down-river, or they are highly toxic nuclear generating plants. And we have built them immediately adjacent to plate fault-lines or sometimes quite literally on top of them.
In a carefully organized and rationalized industrial process, the Fukushima power plants were designed for maximum efficiency. In the case they needed ready access to water, and so were situated, as many such nuclear power stations are, close to the shore of the Pacific Ocean (or rivers or lakes). Also, for the sake of efficiency, 6 nuclear generators were placed in a row, one beside the next. In order to minimize dangers of transportation, the storage of the spent fuel rods (theoretically temporarily – until the world decides how to safely dispose of them) was in pools immediately atop the generator buildings. All of this was, from an industrial standpoint, rationalized as making for the most efficient, profitable, manner to organize the energy-making process.
Sited, as they were, immediately adjacent to an off-shore tectonic fault line famous for generating major earthquakes, the plants were engineered to survive the most major of events. As the zone was also well-known for tsunamis generated by earthquakes, there were anti-tsunami barriers off shore, as there are along much of the coastline of the eastern coast of Japan. While the major structures did survive the quake, the tsunami walls, here and elsewhere, proved woefully inadequate, and in Fukushima, the tsunami wave flooded the area. Back-up diesel generators, present to provide emergency power for cooling in case of a loss of normal electrical, were located on the lower levels of the plants and were disabled by the tsunami wave. Another battery backup system, good only for a few days, was intact, but while the architecture of the plants survived, the wiring and mechanical systems were seriously damaged and hindered or blocked alternative cooling systems.
In the face of the 9 point earthquake and subsequent tsunami the lines of defense all failed. In failing they underlined the logical frailty of the industrial rationalizing which went into designing the plants. Clustering 6 generators next to each other meant the serious failure of one made dealing with lesser failures in the others far more difficult; storing the spent fuel immediately adjacent, and in relatively flimsy structures not really designed to withstand an earthquake (only the actual reactors were so built), made these vulnerable to further failures. One by one the design factors consciously and willfully carried out under one set of logic collapsed in the face of another logic. The simple reality is that nuclear power stations are constructed for economic reasons, for which they are only logical if one keeps very bad accounting. They are very costly to build and maintain; they inherently have a limited life-span owing to the toxicity of the process at the heart of their mechanism; they generate waste which remains toxic and there is not any meaningful disposal system for that waste (aside from dumping on some hapless lesser “other” world). And when the life-span of the plant is over, it too is toxic. Of course in the fiscal wonderland of the nuclear energy industry all these costs are ignored, to be passed on to the public after the money’s been made.
Tragedy is a human construct, something which our consciousness produces, a mechanism to help us where we cannot reconcile ourselves to the reality which is the universe. To explain it some invent gods to make explicable the horrors which nature visits seemingly at random upon us, or to explain or justify the horrors which we ourselves inflict upon each other. In other hands it is some other ideology which provides the lever with which to explain our behavior. In the case of the Fukushima nuclear generating plants it is not simply a matter of engineering, but of the system which prompted the engineering into being. In this case it is a capitalist driven consumerism, for which Japan stands as emblematically a perfect example. It is a nation which fell in a thrall to the wonders of industrialization and all the things which can be made through it. It happens to have few natural resources outside of timber, a bit of coal, and in its embrace in the late 1800’s of industrialization and modernity, it found itself first forced into imperial policies to secure the resources it needed. In consequence it went to war, and lost, profoundly. Pursuing the same policies, it re-industrialized, and to power its factories, it was more or less forced to use nuclear generators as a power producing source. As could have been easily foreseen, it was a bargain with the devil: there is no place on the small island nation of Japan where nuclear plants can safely be built – Japan is itself the product of tectonic plate collisions. While it is doubtless fatuous to imagine it, now perhaps Japan – a place which most Japanese I know admit is not “happy” – will lead the way towards de-industrializing, and adapting to a life with less – far less – in material terms, but perhaps richer in other more important things.