Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Lesson from Fukushima

I once had a classmate in ethics class named Dan.  One day, he and I had a conversation about the fact that when there is a car wreck in our society, we scuttle around to clean it up as quickly as possible, and what this says about the ethics of our society.  By putting our highest priority on getting traffic moving again instead of, say, letting people know what has happened in that spot or creating a memorial or ceremony to acknowledge the tragedy, we say much about the ethics of our society.   In US culture, we are saying we value efficiency over, for example, finding causes of the tragedy or allowing bystanders to participate in a community of mouring.   As Dan explained, "every decision is an ethical decision," even  including how we clean up a mess.   From this ubiquitous example concerning the ethics of cultural decisions, I lead to a more singular case in point, Fukushima.  

Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami recently won the Catalunya Prize.  He donated the cash from the prize to victims of the Japanese Tsunami of 2011.  In his acceptance speech of June 22, 2011 (accessed 3/14/12), he spoke of the decision processes that led policy makers to disregard danger posed by tsunamis that historically have battered Japan.  Murakami describes this an ethical decision made by society:
What I want to talk about here isn’t something like buildings or roads, which can be rebuilt; but rather about things which can’t be reconstructed easily, such as ethics and values. Such things are not physically tangible. Once they are broken, it’s difficult to restore them, as this cannot be achieved with machines, labour and materials.
What I’m talking about concretely is the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

As you probably know, at least three of the six nuclear reactors damaged by the earthquake and tsunami have not yet been restored, and continue to leak radiation around them. Meltdowns occurred, and the surrounding soil has been contaminated. Water that probably contains high levels of radioactivity has been dispersed in the surrounding ocean, and the wind is carrying radiation to more distant areas.

Hundreds of thousands of people have had to evacuate their homes. Farms, ranches, factories, commercial centres and ports are now deserted, having been completely abandoned. Those who lived there may not ever be able to return. It also grieves me to say that the damage from this accident is not limited to Japan, but will spread to neighbouring countries as well.

The reason why such a tragic accident occurred is more or less clear. The people who built these nuclear plants had not imagined that such a large tsunami would strike them. Some experts pointed out that tsunami of similar scale had struck these regions previously, and insisted that the safety standards should be revised. The electrical power companies, however, ignored them. As commercial ventures, these companies did not want to invest massively in preparing for a tsunami which may occur only once every few hundred years.

We should investigate this situation, and if mistakes are found they should be rectified. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to leave their land, and have seen their lives turned upside down. . . .

At the same time, we must be critical of ourselves for having tolerated and allowed these corrupted systems to exist until now.
This accident cannot be dissociated from our ethics and values.

***  We, the Japanese people, paved our own way for this tragedy, making grave errors and contributing to the destruction of our own lands and lives.
Why did this occur? What happened to our rejection of nuclear power after World War II? What was it that corrupted our goal of a peaceful and prosperous society, which we had been pursuing so diligently?

The reason is simple. The reason is “efficiency”.

The electrical power companies insisted that nuclear plants offered an efficient power generation system. In other words, it was a system from which they could derive profit. For its part, the Japanese government doubted the stability of petroleum supplies, particularly since the oil crisis, and promoted nuclear power generation as national policy. The electrical power companies spent huge amounts of money on advertisements, thereby bribing the media to indoctrinate the Japanese people with the illusion that nuclear power generation was completely safe.

Before we knew it, 30 percent of electricity generation was being supplied by nuclear power. Japan, a small island nation frequently struck by earthquakes, thus became the third leading nuclear power-generating country, without the Japanese people even realizing what was happening.

We had gone beyond the point of no return. The deed was done. Those who doubted nuclear power generation were now asked the intimidating question, “Would you be in favour of power shortages?” Japanese people had come to believe that reliance on nuclear power was inevitable. Living without air conditioning during a hot and humid Japanese summer is almost akin to torture. Consequently, those who harbour doubts about nuclear power generation came to be labelled as “unrealistic dreamers”.
And so we arrived where we are today. Nuclear power plants, which were supposed to be efficient, instead offer us a vision of hell. This is the reality.

The so-called “reality” that has been proclaimed by those who promote nuclear power however, isn’t reality at all. It is nothing more than superficial “convenience”, which their flawed logic confused with reality itself.

This situation marked the collapse of the myth regarding Japan’s technological prowess, of which the Japanese people had been so proud. In addition, allowing this distorted logic represented the defeat of existing Japanese ethics and values. We now blame the electrical companies and Japanese government, which is right and necessary. At the same time however, we must also point the finger at ourselves. We are at once victims and perpetrators, and we must consider this fact seriously. If we fail to do so, we will make the same mistake again.
The same forces are continuing to drive many public policy decisions, with equal if not greater levels of risk.  These forces have not changed since Biblical times.  Expedience, convenience, comfort, greed, you name it.  In the interest of expediency, we only listen to the answer we want to hear.  Hearing what we want to hear, to the exclusion of all other voices.  When confronted with the truth, we attempt to deflect blame in any direction other than ourselves.  Failing to take responsibility, we court disaster.   What will the next consequences be?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comment!