What the Japanese Disaster Portends for Modern Civilization
For years now I have been arguing with my West coast friends about whether it is safer to live in the Florida hurricane zone or on the edge of the Pacific rim, that area of the globe geologist call “the ring of Fire” because the earth’s tectonic forces are constantly pushing up molten rock toward the surface. And sooner or later it will explode with a murderous fury. Although many people may view the choice as a matter of picking your poison, I definitely prefer the hurricane zone. Even if I’d had a shadow of a doubt about it, after witnessing the devastation of the Japanese Tsunami it would have evaporated faster than Sammy Davis Jr. could draw his guns!
Although they may be equally destructive, as Katrina demonstrated, compared to the sudden terror of a Tsunami, hurricanes are rather mild affairs. I have lived through six hurricanes, five on land and one at sea, and each time I had enough warning to get to a safe place on high ground; except when at sea, which was the most frightening of the six. It was when I discovered that I was a true atheist, because everybody on the ship was praying but me…even the old head salty dogs. But even then we knew it was coming, we just couldn’t out run it; I was on an oil tanker, a working ship that didn’t have the speed of military or luxury vessels, which allowed them to evade storms at sea.
Point of Impact: The Tsunami Hits!
Sweeping away all our prized possessions In her path
Tsunamis, however, explode upon land with virtually no warning! That’s because they are generally trigged by volcanic eruptions beneath the sea. These undersea eruptions are caused by the shifting of massive plates of earth at the bottom of the ocean. When this happens the shock waves ripple across the surface of the sea and pick up velocity. Although it is hardly noticed by ships at sea when they Crash into the shore it becomes a wall of water. The wave that hit Japan was about three and a half stories high; tons of water moving at the speed of a jetliner washing away everything in its path. And this can happen suddenly on a bright sunshine filled day
The people who survived the horrifying ordeal talk as if they have been to hell and back, and nearly a thousand have already been pulled from the wreckage, and as I write the Japanese Prime minister Naoto Kan is estimating that it will take weeks before we know how many lives were lost! It will also be weeks, if not longer to restore Japan to where it was before the Tsunami altered the course of their history. The extent to which this alteration proves true depends at the moment on whether Japanese atomic scientist can prevent a meltdown at their nuclear plants. This unthinkable disaster is becoming a real possibility. So if you are inclined to pray, fall on your knees and get to it because the Japanese people need all the help they can get from everywhere.
Aftermath of the Apocalypse!
If they have a meltdown of the core at one of the damaged nuclear plants we will witness a disaster on a scale that we have only witnessed once in the history of the world in peacetime: The nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl Russia. The atomic attacks on Japan by the US were a worse disaster, but that was an act of war intended to bring Japan to her knees.
The Fire Last Time
Nagasaki Japan, 1945: Autographed by bomber pilot
Chernobyl: After the meltdown
It is great historical irony that the Japanese should be facing a nuclear disaster just over half a century after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated by atomic bombs. And this time the disaster will result from the peaceful use of atomic energy to generate electricity. It wasn’t even a question of human error, which is always a danger; it was the forces of nature. Even if the Japanese are able to prevent a meltdown, their near miss poses a serious question for modern civilization: Is it sustainable without nuclear power? We know the oil will run out eventually…some believe within the next 50 years, and then what? Is the benefit of nuclear energy worth the risk? To be, or not to be, a nuclear nation, that is the question.
Given the present state of energy technology we would be forced to consider reducing our level of consumption, which has become virtually the only measure of our living standard. In the economically overdeveloped west, which has created the ultimate consumer society, such a choice would produce widespread anxiety in people forced to decide. Yet this is the choice that must be made. But even so, I can conceive of no argument that can persuade emerging economies like China, India and Brazil to abandon atomic energy; it is their passport into the modern world. So there we have it.
Ever since I served in the 91st Strato-bomber Wing of the United States Strategic Air Command, where I enjoyed a “Top Secret” security clearance, I have been skeptical about the use of atomic power. I fear the great hazards associated with it even for peaceful purposes. And it goes without saying that I consider the continued maintenance of nuclear weapons stockpiles to be not only a manifestation of collective paranoia masquerading as patriotism, but also a crime against humanity.
I’d love to share the optimism of the novelist William Faulkner who, despite witnessing the Nazi holocaust and the atomic bombing of Japan a few years earlier, confidently declared in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “man will endure.” But given what we know for sure about human beings – especially our propensity for avarice, malice and murderous folly, or just honest errors – now that the nuclear Genie is out of the bottle and afoot in the world…I have my doubts.
Harlem, New York