Japan’s Earthquake-Tsunami Made Worse by High Risk Technologies Everywhere

Japan’s ordeal upsets and confronts onlookers because of the way tragedies unfolding from the natural disaster of an earthquake and tsunami touched off the unraveling of a more ominous human mistake – construction of a nuclear power plant in a known earthquake zone.

Other disasters of recent years – such as tsunamis in Indonesia and Thailand, hurricanes in New Orleans, and earthquakes in Haiti – caused many people to open their hearts to the survival needs of less fortunate people. The victims evoked a deep-seated sense of compassion because they were left with nothing standing between them and the whimsical ravages of Nature – the most abandoned and helpless situation moderns can imagine.

By contrast, Japan’s spiraling disasters cause many people to open their minds to the precarious quality of modern technologies that put too many things between people and nature – the opposite of what moderns imagine being abandoned and helpless before whimsical forces might mean.

Watching a nuclear power plant go critical can’t help but make observers more critical of technologies with that kind of uncontrollable operating system.

I’ve been tough on modern technologies for most of my adult life, but this is the first time it’s really hit me that almost all technologies since the 1940s belong on the critical list.

This goes far beyond nuclear power plants, likely to become a leading symbol of Japan’s trauma.

Though the media can be counted on to ignore a larger perspective on technology, Japan’s torment invites us to think of the inherently dangerous category of technologies which produce what sociologist Charles Perrow famously calls Normal Accidents. These technologies are far more pervasive than nuclear power, though they share with nuclear a common origin in research and development originated from the arsenal of military or space age (which amounts to the same thing) research and development.

The new era was announced, in what must be an especially bitter memory today, with the nuclear explosion that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki and brought World War 11 to an end.  The bomb, and the so-called “peaceful atom” that followed, broke through the natural limits that previously governed both explosives and electrical power plants. Scores of other defiant technologies followed in their wake.

A critical eye on high-risk technologies invites a review of ancient myths of Nemesis, the most controversial of Greek goddesses. Nemesis is often depicted as vengeful, punishing and merciless. But if nemesis is understood in terms of a literal translation of the Greek roots, it is more about negative feedback inflicted on those who defy natural limits – a lost but once-universal theme of all ancients, including those raised on the story of the Tower of Babble.

Weird as it might seem to people familiar with modern economists, nemesis draws on one of the same root words as economics – the “nomics” referring to managing or stewarding. Today’s technologies, such as Japan’s nuclear plant facing trial before a court of world opinion, are based on an ideology of confronting nature’s limits with risk management, which goes far beyond the original sense of management as stewardship.

Almost all of today’s everyday and spectacular technologies descend from World War 11-and-just-after times when the sense of human hope and potential was infused with the potential of trumping nature’s laws.

The aerospace industry perfected jet engines, where pilots “pushed the envelope,” and broke the sound barrier as well as defying the laws of gravity.

In clothing, new synthetic materials such as nylon were cheaper and tougher than natural materials. In building, cement displaced natural building materials.

In food and agriculture, nothing was off limit. As suggested by the aggressiveness of words such as pesticide and herbicide (‘cide as in homicide and suicide) and anti-biotic (as in anti-life), many of the inventions came from wartime research on poisons, just as chlorine-based cleaners and pesticides inherited their power to kill germs and insects from use as poison gas.

The huge leap in farm production based on synthetic fertilizers violated the food equivalent of the law of gravity – the Law of Return, basing tomorrow’s soil fertility on recycled and composted products from yesterday’s fertility.

In popular culture, even the understanding of environment lost its moorings. Instead of the eco in ecology and economics — which referred to household, as in the place where humans lived — environment and nature came to mean wilderness, the other place, where humans didn’t live, but might nevertheless choose to protect, if it didn’t cause an eco-nomic problem.

One problem with many of these technologies was that they moved at such speed that only computers –another war industry, originally used to calculate missile trajectories – could track and “manage” them.

Since computers remain ways of going very quickly with crude and simplistic yes-no choices, they can gum up uncontrollably – the basis for Charles Perrow’s classic book of 1984, best known for its treatment of how the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island went berserk, an event often recalled by journalists covering Japan’s travails.

According to info available now, leaked radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant has been found in nearby spinach and will likely continue contaminating soil for some 60 years.

As it turns out, people in highly industrialized and urbanized environments are usually more protected from ravages of uncontrollable Nature than people in less mechanized environments, but they are many times more subject to the ravages of uncontrollable Technology. Nuclear fallout continues to do its damage long after radiation leaks out, and long after the destruction from flooding is cleaned up. It’s the same story with the polluting aftermath of a raft of modern technologies, many of which feature toxins unknown to and therefore unbalanced by Nature. Turns out that the secret to their miraculous effectiveness  was the fact that Nature had no defences against them and couldn’t break them down, which meant that their secret of success was also the dirty secret of their long-lasting damage.

Two technologies dominant in mainstream food production bring agriculture to the precipice of runaway accidents with impacts on par with nuclear power plants. Genetic engineering overrides Nature’s species barriers, and factory farms use antibiotics to trump the physical and psychological needs of sentient animals. Either technology could “go critical” with a runaway weed problem choking food crops or a runaway new diseases that overcomes the precious antibiotics inherited from the 1940s.

Everyone has a sense that what’s happening in Japan is not only a tragedy, but also a “teachable moment.” It remains to be seen whether we learn that too many of our technologies are built on some version of an earthquake zone.


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