The largest earthquake in history; a massive tsunami which left thousands dead; a nuclear power plant in crisis… Such a ‘disaster listing’ has left Japan – and the world as it attempts an appropriate response – with a pile of as-yet unanswered and perhaps ‘un-answerable’ questions….
What, if anything can we humans, learn from this tragedy?
A considerable amount, I would argue. Most of all, how we ‘view’ Nature and the many assumptions made through this overly ‘human-centred’ approach.
In yesterday’s China Daily, Op Rana puts the Japanese disaster into context.
Of all the moving images from Japan that shocked the world on the first couple of days, one stood out for its stark contrast. The scene, most probably from Sendai, showed a tree standing as mute witness to all man-made things – from automobiles and boats to seawalls and houses – being washed away by the tsunami. Here was nature represented by the earthquake and tsunami at its worst and by the standing tree at its best at the same time.
The quake-induced tsunami has killed thousands of people, and left many more thousands injured, traumatized and homeless. The twin natural disasters have also turned the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into Frankenstein’s monster, a man-made object threatening man.
Nature has time and again reminded humans of their vulnerability and fragile existence, and the physically insignificant place they occupy in the order of things natural.
But the overpowering sense of superiority we humans have come to entertain and glorify in has turned us into one-eyed Nelsons.
We turn the blind eye to nature’s warnings. The good one, we keep for self-aggrandizement.
The developed world woke up to the threat of foul air in the 1960s. In the 1970s, the ozone hole made humans sit up. By the 1980s, humans had discovered another threat: greenhouse gases. In the 1990s, they realized the threat of global warming. But before that, in the 1970s, rising oil prices made them realize fossil fuel wouldn’t last forever. So the advanced countries turned to nuclear power with a vengeance; nuclear power plants had been around for two decades, though. Some not-so advanced countries followed in their footsteps slowly but certainly.
The overwhelming agreement among mainstream scientists and experts is that nuclear power is clean, cheap and safe. That they are water guzzlers, needing billions of gallons a day, and produce long-term radioactive waste (spent nuclear fuel – unconverted uranium and actinides such as uranium, plutonium and curium) is discounted.
From Greifswald (in erstwhile East Germany) and Three Mile Island (US) to Chernobyl in former Soviet Union (now in Ukraine), human errors and accidents have been warning champions of nuclear energy of the dangers. But they have either ignored or downplayed those warnings.
The media that have made a killing out of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility disaster will soon, as is their wont, forget the dangers and restart trumpeting the advantages of nuclear power. They are more like stock investors, who make hay when shares go up and are the first ones to jump ship at the slightest sign of danger. We have seen investors over the years – they were on show again when Japanese stocks nosedived following Friday’s disaster.
In the end, helpless people are left at the mercy of officials running the government or private power or industrial plants where accidents occur. These officials are rarely forthcoming with facts, because they have their business interests to protect. We have seen this phenomenon everywhere, from the Bhopal gas tragedy in India to Chernobyl, from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility disaster.
The tragedy is that we still have to rely on them because we need energy to run the world’s economic engine or rather grease the hungry-for-profit palms. Until we cut down our unnecessary demands on nature, until we stop producing in excess of our needs, until we learn to compromise our so-called modern-day comforts, until we heed the warnings of nature, we will keep encountering Bhopals, Chernobyls and Fukushimas.
The world has seen what years of human efforts to make money (as in Japan) can come to at even the slightest nudge of nature. The magnitude 9 quake and tsunami were just a reminder, not even a warning, of nature’s wrath.
Yet the world, particularly the advanced world, prefers to ignore the threat of climate change (which nature has been warning of for a considerably long time). Once the volatile balance of planet Earth shifts, even so slightly, all the financial and other gains that the self-proclaimed masters of the universe, the economics and science whiz-kids have made can vanish in the flick of an eye.
But do the “masters of the universe” care?
The author is a senior editor with China Daily.