Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lessons from the Brink

Words and pictures are never enough to accurately capture experiences, especially those that are totally out of the ordinary such as the combination of natural and human-enabled disasters that are unfolding in Japan. Yet, for those of us with even a shred of empathy, there is a need to share those experiences, to help in whatever way we can, and to relate them to our own lives so we can learn from them and make the future better for all of us.

The most obvious way to improve the future as a result of a disaster is to determine how to prepare for something similar so we can minimize, if not totally prevent, a loss of life and lifestyle. We can also use the disaster as a starting point for imagining related events that may be even more devastating, and prepare for them as well. Using the experience to better understand how the world works can be of immense help, expanding the range of possibilities. Given our physical and social constraints (competing priorities for resources), we can only do what's possible, and work toward reducing those constraints in the future. These approaches are best used for natural disasters, which almost by definition we have no control over.

For the disasters we do have some control over, many of us will want to do whatever we can to prevent them altogether. The combination of increasingly powerful technologies and growing numbers of people who can use them has enabled us to influence global processes, precipitating what used to be purely “natural” phenomena such as hurricanes, sea levels, droughts, and – potentially – earthquakes and asteroid impacts. Our destruction of ecosystems in the process of settlement has exacerbated the effects of events we have no control over, such as amplifying the impact of hurricanes by destroying wetlands. On the large scale, the extinction of species is totally altering the planet in both foreseeable and unforeseeable ways, none of which can be good for most of us.

Japan was hammered by earthquakes and a tsunami that were geological in origin. As horrific as the loss of life was, it could have been a lot worse. Having previously dealt with both types of events, the country was largely prepared for each; though, it turns out, not totally for both, and at the magnitude at which they occurred. This information will be useful in the future, but should not be a distraction from dealing with the present or a tool for judging either the present or the past.

What may have a far worse impact on not just Japan, but the rest of the world, is the human-enabled disaster in progress at seven of the country's nuclear plants. As I write, several reactors are in partial meltdown and hundreds of tons of spent nuclear fuel are in danger of being dispersed into the atmosphere, despite the more-than-heroic efforts of workers at the plants. Anticipated effects run the gamut from somewhere between the Three Mile Island event and Chernobyl, to cancer on a global scale. In the worst case, there may be no way to adapt in time to avoid mass death.

The simplest way to keep this kind of nightmare from happening in the future is to stop using nuclear energy altogether. This proposal has been made and attacked by the usual defenders of the status quo, who argue instead for improving the safety of existing plants; and incorporating those improvements in future plants which, incredibly, are advertised as “green” alternatives to fossil fuels while even in the best case there are no safe ways to dispose of their nuclear waste.

It's hard not to see this as a variation of the classic battle between those who want to play it safe so the world can survive, and those who want to take risks so individuals can maximize their power over the world. In the case of the former, there is a sense of responsibility for one's actions on everyone (and everything else); in the case of the latter, there is a faith that a higher power won't let anything really bad happen to them. More crudely, there's a dichotomy between needs versus wants, and adults versus spoiled children who think their (absentee) parent, such as a deity, will keep them safe. The spoiled children will enthusiastically take risks to get whatever they want, which is why, in families (whose children live to reproduce), parents limit the power of their children to what they can use without causing harm to themselves or others.

Culture is perhaps our greatest technology, and one obvious way to harness it so we can avoid potential human-caused disasters is to do a better job of enabling us all to “grow up” as fast as possible. Barring this, the “adults” will need to manage an overall decrease in the amount of power we can each exercise, to a level where as few people as possible will be harmed by playing. Risks will always be necessary to find and deal with the unknown and the uncertain, but they should be managed so they don't jeopardize our ability to meet our needs. The alternative, the current status quo, is that eventually (if not soon) the consequences of taking excess risk and putting the wants of the few ahead of needs of all will limit our numbers in a drastic way.

No comments: