Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Higher Purpose: Japans earthquake and nuclear crisis asks us what we really want

What do we as a people really want? What kind of technological infrastructure do we really want? Recent disasters, by taking away specific parts of the technological infrastructure running our society, demonstrate their real cost. Is this a cost we really want to pay?

To recap - last Friday a tremendous earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, triggering a Tsunami that wiped out dozens of coastal towns despite the high seawalls. The Tsunami knocked out the backup power supply at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and with no electricity the cooling system at the power plant stopped running, leading to several explosions, fires, the containment buildings blown up, it's likely the inner containment structure has fractured, and the fuel rods are melting. Plumes of radiation are being unleashed out over the ocean and we could very well see radioactive clouds where I live in California. It's going bad to worse to impossibly worse. It's like a replay of last years oil spill disaster, just different details. The oil spill last year took several months to play out, and it demonstrated the icky consequences of our modern lifestyle. It appears this nuclear crisis will also take several months to play out, and it's demonstrating other icky consequences of our modern lifestyle.

Economists have this word: externality

Business leaders try to externalize costs - which is a fancy word for pushing the cost for something onto someone else so that you don't have to pay the cost yourself. An example is the health care costs of people being poisoned by exhaust from cars burning fossil oil based fuels. It's well known that the exhaust contains poisonous chemicals that cause a wide range of diseases, for example gasoline pumps have stickers warning that the pump dispenses material that is a known carcinogen. Do the oil companies pay for the health care costs? No.

That was an interesting detour - I want to discuss a question both disasters bring to mind: What do we as a people want?

When you turn on a light bulb, where does the power come from? Refrigerator? Washing machine? The computer you're reading this on? The car you drive around?

The power companies have given us an externality situation. We get to use electricity or gasoline without having to be aware of the real cost of supplying the power.

Our use of gasoline and diesel forced the oil companies to drill that oil well that blew up last year. Our use of electricity forced the electric power utilities to build the nuclear power plant that's blowing up right now.

What we see with both these disasters is the worst possible disaster scenario of both energy sources.

An offshore oil well blowing up and spewing crude oil for months into an area that supplies a huge percentage of the seafood we enjoy in the United States.

A nuclear plant blowing up and spewing radiation for what we expect will be months. Further Japan has shut down several reactor complexes because of the earthquake, causing rolling blackouts and a general shutdown of industry in Japan, disrupting sales of critical electronics components. There will be a ripple effect in the economy that could drive us into a world-wide recession or depression due to disruption of the supply chain.

One can point to the power suppliers - Maybe BP is stupid and liable because they did a horrid job of running their oil well safely - Maybe TEPCO is stupid and liable because they made bad mistakes for example putting the backup diesel generators in a place that got swamped by the Tsunami - or General Electric is stupid and liable for building a susceptibility nuclear plant design

All that's true, these companies could have made better choices and run their business with better safety in mind.

However that doesn't wash our hands of responsibility. Each of us who buy gasoline or use electricity are responsible for the existence of those companies. Those companies formed themselves in response to our demand for gasoline and electricity.

Another folly is the choice of building critical infrastructure in places we know are liable to have serious damage or other serious consequences. In this case the choice was to install nuclear power plants near a fault but really Japan is on the Ring of Fire and see's earthquakes all the time.

The planet and its processes (earthquakes, hurricanes, tornado's, weather systems, etc) are still much larger than human society has been able to "conquer". This earthquake demonstrates the power of Mother Nature - A fault needed to slip and shimmy a bit, but it destroyed the objects we built along the coast. The planet doesn't really know or care what we built upon it, the planet has geological forces that are playing out.

"We" build stuff, towns and highways and nuclear plants, then the planet yawns and stretches and destroys those things. By having those things taken away from us, it presents an opportunity to take a step back and look from a broader perspective. Are those things we really want anyway? Is the cost of having those things greater than the benefit we get from them? Is there a better place to put those things than a spot that's prone to earthquakes?

Do we really want a life where the consequences of the things we buy is a poisoned landscape with toxic air and water? Do we have to recreate the world the way it has been the last few years?

Maybe our history is asking us to rethink our society and the technological gizmos we use in our society?

See also:

Change starts "here"; Change starts with "you"; Change starts with "me"

Stand up for Real Change

This world doesn't have to become an uninhabitable nuclear radiation poisoned wasteland

Higher Purpose: Japans earthquake and nuclear crisis asks us what we really want

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