Monday, March 28, 2011

Hubris, Fukushima, and Our Future

by Miki Kashtan

Despite decades of news fasting, I have been following the situation at Fukushima quite closely since the earthquake on March 11th. I am neither an expert on the field, nor do I think that there is much that hasn’t been said already about the situation, and so I don’t plan to say a whole lot about the situation itself. What I want to write about instead is how the situation is being talked about – or not, as the case may be.

Reporting about Fukushima
For the first number of days, updates about the situation appeared frequently. A Wikipedia article was created that kept a timeline of the events and was being updated many times a day.

In the last few days I see two developments in going in opposite directions. On the one hand the situation at Fukushima appears to me to be worsening. I hear of significantly higher doses of radiation showing up in more and more places. I hear of plutonium seeping into the ground. I hear of radiation-contaminated water preventing access to cooling the reactors, and of an incredibly delicate balancing act between keeping the contaminated water from overflowing and keeping the reactors cool enough. I hear of partial meltdowns and possible nuclear fission that’s happened. I hear of no clear big-picture plan for how to turn things around. I hear of decisions that had been made that are now being questioned. I even hear of the government considering taking control of the plant because of dissatisfaction with the efforts on the part of TEPCO, the plant operator.

On the other hand the updates are less and less frequent, and are less and less prominent in the news.

I struggle to make sense of this. It’s far from the first time I have had a similar experience. I have noticed that in general we only hear about some place in the world when there is war or other disasters, and then that place disappears. This time, though, we are less about a situation that’s continuing to get worse. Why is that? Is it because someone, somewhere, decided that the situation in Libya is “more important” and therefore the instability and protracted crisis in Fukushima is demoted? Is it because someone, somewhere, decided that people don’t have the attention span?

I don’t have answers. I just know I find this unsettling.

Thinking about Fukushima
Early on in the unfolding of the Fukushima tragedy, someone sent me a link to Brave New Climate – a blog written by Barry Brook, an Australian professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences. The general message of that blog is that the way of the future is nuclear, and that nuclear is the only antidote to climate change. As I read the original post, still struggling to make sense of anything that I was hearing about Fukushima, I found the attempt to reassure me that “there is no credible risk of a serious accident” did not reassure me in the least. Two days later Barry wrote the following: “My initial estimates of the extent of the problem, on March 12, did not anticipate the cascading problems that arose from the extended loss of externally sourced AC power to the site, and my prediction that ‘there is no credible risk of a serious accident’ has been proven quite wrong as a result. It remains to be seen whether my forecast on the possibility of containment breaches and the very low level of danger to the public as a result of this tragic chain of circumstances will be proven correct. For the sake of the people there, I sure hope it does stand the test of time.”

Being a scientist, after looking at the facts two days later, Barry admitted his error on the factual level. I don’t see any evidence, nor have I seen any since then, that he is questioning his process of thinking. From my perspective, if his prediction was wrong once, it could be wrong again, both about his immediate prediction, as well as about his overall approach to nuclear power.

I confess to having been haunted and obsessed by Barry’s blog. I haven’t given up hope that he and the many people commenting on his blog will start questioning their beliefs based on the increasing severity of the situation and their continuing inability to predict (as I understand things; I could be misinterpreting the severity or their predictions or both). For now, the general tone I have heard is that Fukushima is providing proof that the future is nuclear. The reason as I understand it from what I read is that every form of energy has risks, and that an accident like Fukushima has minimal risk compared to, say, the risks of using coal. Barry sees nuclear waste, for example, as an economic boon, a source of cheap energy for future nuclear plants that can use it. He also believes that renewable energy is not going to pan out as a serious alternate source of energy, and hence concludes that nuclear energy is the only alternative to climate change. The possibility of reducing consumption, even drastically, as a way to address climate change, is not part of the conversation on his blog.

What Do We Learn from Errors?
Ancient Greek tragedies contain numerous examples of hubris, which is often a reference to “actions of those who challenged the gods or their laws … resulting in the protagonist’s downfall.” (Wikipedia article) In modern parlance hubris is equated with a certain kind of pride or arrogance.

For some reason I cannot completely fathom, Barry’s error and his way of thinking about it have become a symbol for me of a particular form of hubris. We have come to believe that we can control nature, subjugate it to our wishes, and predict the results. We have come to believe that science and technology can offer solutions to every problem, even those caused by technology itself. We have come to idolize a certain form of “rational” thinking and to look down on emotions, needs, intuition, bodies.

I am scared by this kind of thinking. I care deeply about our species and about nature. I want us to thrive, and I want us to thrive within nature’s capacity. I see the way of thinking symbolized by Barry’s blog as having brought us, collectively, to the very challenging place we are in as a species. I am nervous to be writing this, and I still want to take the risk of doing it, because I am so desperately hoping that we will find a way to wake up and change course.

As I said earlier, I am not making any pronouncement about nuclear power and certainly not any predictions about Fukushima. I am worried, despite not having predictions, because substances that remain toxic for tens of thousands of years frighten me, especially when I read that no adequate solution has been found so far for storing the waste from nuclear reactors, Barry’s cheerful ideas about using nuclear waste notwithstanding. Worried or not, what I am most struggling to embrace, against the legacy that I, too, was born and trained in, is humility, the attitude of not knowing.