Archive for April, 2011

Coping with fallout

April 18, 2011

[Note: see my previous posts on the Japanese nuclear threat, see my previous posts “Prep, don’t panic over fallout” and “Web-based truths…” posts.]

Fukushima’s radiation continues to leak and Americans seem completely disinterested. Now of course the mainstream media is an old and familiar culprit in keeping the people uninformed. Rising out of the perception management game now is also the Federal Government, which appears unwilling to test and identify the scope of the threat. The lesson appears to be that we’re on our own.

I’m beginning to think the problem isn’t with greedy corporations, or weak regulatory enforcement but rather with the American people. Most seem so passive and accepting of their fate. It really does bring up the saying that all evil needs is for people to do nothing to confront it.

Of course if no one opposes these corporate behemoths then they’ll get away with everything they can. It brings up another saying, by Benjamin Franklin, to the effect that we’ve been given a Republic, if we can keep it.

It takes an informed populace to keep its leaders under control. People need to participate in the democratic process. I’ve heard democracy described not as an end but a work in progress. If people don’t get involved, there’s no one to hold those in power accountable.

As bad as the corporations are, it’s the unwillingness of the American public to fight for itself that’s a far greater challenge.

I’ve talked to someone whose come to accept being downwind of the Fukushima disaster. They believe that the odds of being affected are something they have to live with. Get impact, well then that’s just your bad break. Price of living in a modern society. Beyond our control.

I say that’s a bunch of crap. People need to resist. We’re more than chattel. This I believe from a spiritual perspective. We need to work together to preserve our world–isn’t that the only way we’ll survive? Logically, Spock would say, there is only one direction or way to go which protects the human species from destruction and greed brought on by a debt-based, hyper-consumption economy.

[By the way, Joe Sargeant passed away in March of this year. A great essayist, one of his final essays is a favorite of mine. See it here.]

The survival of the earth requires more than a bunker mentality; we need to work together to confront the problems we face.

Not everyone is concerned. In his explicit skit Saving the Planet, George Carlin would say that the world will shake us off like fleas, insignificant and puny in earth’s ability to outlast species extinctions and things far worse than us.

“The planet is fine…the people are f*cked,” Carlin explains. “We have the conceit to believe we can put earth in jeopardy.”

Carlin is fatalistic, embracing the evolutionary process, which he believes will lead human evolution down a cul-de-sac. “The planet isn’t going anywhere–we are,” he says.

Carlin’s acceptance aside, maybe ignorance–that of sheople–is just one way of dealing with the tremendous uncertainty of living in uncertain times. Just ignore the problem and it will go away.

We have to look at the emotional ramifications of dealing with our eventual extinction. Like the grieving, people probably go through a process dealing with death of their mother earth. [Willful Ignorance>Shock>Denial> Anger>Sadness>Acceptance ] Most Americans seem stuck in the willful ignorance category, which could be categorized as a form of denial. Then again, that’s perhaps the only way to cope with a threat unseen, made more terrifying from radiation’s ability to hide and persist.

Like living in a concentration camp, the act of simply surviving can trigger a denial response, especially if day-to-day survival was questonable. It’s like the scene in Schindler’s List where a female prisoner is shot by the camp’s commandant, played by Ralph Fiennes. She’d been resting, not doing enough work to please Hauptsturmfiihrer (Captain) Goeth.

Under those conditions, camp prisoners would be aware of the threat. All the prisoners knew they were being watched. At some point they would just accept the possibility of instant death, once they’d done all they could to avoid behaviors that could result in death.

We’re not as far gone as concentration camp prisoners in accepting our death. Still, if Americans knew more about fallout from Fukushima, they’d take steps to avoid it.

With radioactive particles–albeit in small doses–randomly flying around, what can be done? Geiger counters have become scarce, and then there’s government’s weak reaction (precedent set by the BP spill) to the threat. Don’t worry about it, Obama told us. Many believed him, still stuck in the ignorance phase. Like the Gulf oil spill, the President’s credibility has been turned into a placation device, a soothing adjustment to new realities that would depress most Americans.

I’ve in the past blogged about Americans’ dreadful preoccupation with happiness and the stark terror of its opposite: depression. As in the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, perhaps we Americans in particular suffer from being unhappy about unhappiness, rather than accepting life whatever it brings.

The Japanese have a concept called “gaman” which is a state of acceptance for things unpleasant. Gaman in its most extreme form might by what Sergeant John Basilone (played by Joseph Mazzello in the series Pacific) tells Marine recruits that Japanese soldiers are capable of tolerating intolerable conditions..muddy, worm-ridden rice, etc..

On a more banal level, Japanese citizens in their everyday routine exercise gaman when they endure unpleasantries. Often the practice of gaman involves avoiding any public display of discontent, though they may be warranted.

Across Japanese society, people ascribe to a norm of extreme politeness; the way this state of supposed calm is achieved is by not rocking the boat. The practice of gaman de-emphasizes the individual, diminishing the individual’s response to issues. The theoretical benefit of gaman is improved homogeneity; on a society-wide basis, that comes from not expressing individual reactions, sucking it up for the group.

The time for the Japanese to remain silent has definitely passed. If any pre-conceived Japanese culture notion needs to die, it’s the idea of gaman, at least with radiation. The only victims of a nuclear bomb, the Japanese of all people know firsthand the terrible effects of radiation. While Fukushima (and other reactors which may be leaking) may not offer any singular spectacular effect–white flash, mushroom cloud, etc.–in time the doses could exceed Hiroshima’s and Nagasaki’s together.

The issue with radioactive leaks, as opposed to detonations, is that they may not be large enough to trigger alarm. I mean, yes, of course people are aware of leaking radiation, but what all does that mean? Do they not go to work? Do they decide to leave the area and if so, how far will they go? Can they afford to go? Maybe the trauma, expense, and risks of relocating don’t make sense, particularly if one is over 50 or so, and health effects may take 20-25 years to manifest.

No one can be truly safe from all hazard, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reduce our chances either. Unfortunately, the human experience is one that doesn’t fit with isolation and hunkering down. I suppose at some point, most everyone would abandon their bomb shelters, even if they had enough food, simply because human beings crave one another’s company. We need contact with others–it makes us who we are.

However passively you react to the threat, there’s the huge environmental impact to the unborn. By doing nothing to protect it, we’re setting up future generations to live in our polluted, radiated world. Clean up will be necessary.

If in a state of denial, we seed our own destruction. Corporations will come along and pollute, knowing they face weak opposition in many places. Also, corporate polluters “capture” the regulatory environment through which they can escape accountability.

Ignorance applied like a salve to our anxieties hasn’t worked, and it certainly will only get worse, to the point people will need to embrace 24/7, 360 degree denial in everything that surrounds them, in everything they eat, drink, or breath.

The passivity of so many says so much about them, and the legacy of self-centeredness which seems to have hit a high water mark. “If it doesn’t affect me, then I don’t care.” Well, eventually Fukushima will affect most everyone. One factor is the rapid rise in levels of acceptable radiation in our water and food. If reached, the higher tolerance threshold could affect as many as one in four Americans who drink tap water. That kind of number isn’t just someone else’s problem.

And then there’s the economy, the so-called invisible hand of the market. If this economic survival-of-the fittest were actually occurring–like the market fundamentalists preach about–then the BPs, Citibanks, and GMs of the world would have been driven into bankruptcy. Instead, they receive massive government bailouts. Their stock prices have barely been decreased, with the exception of Citigroup who wasn’t able to recover despite over $1 trillion in government aid and Federal Reserve interest-free loans.

Give me a trillion and I’ll make some real money! A gorilla could make money investing in US Treasuries with money borrowed for free. So I guess Citigroup’s problems, like so many other financial entities, is far deeper and impeded structurally. For instance, all those loans may not have made their way into investments but rather used to shore up existing bad loans. We saw a similar situation in Japan’s lost decade: the Japanese gov’t bought bank shares to prop them up, which simply meant the bad loans weren’t purged and other painful though necessary structural changes weren’t implemented.

It was easy for the Japanese banks then, just as it easy for the operators of the stricken Fukushima plant, to ignore the severity of their problems and simply push the consequences down the line. That passivity kills. Literally. There will be people dying from an inability to stop the radioactive leaks. All this could have been prevented with better maintenance, better design (not GE’s), and improved safety precautions. But as I’ve said, the nuclear power industry is completely unprofitable if every possible precaution were taken. SInce a company within the hyper-capitalist system can’t be unprofitability and survive, safety is sacrificed.

The price will be economic as sections of Japan become unpopulated. Already, I see that Morgan Stanley abandoned a $3billion dollar office building in Tokyo. Hard to think that all that radiation billowing in from the reactor less than 200 miles away (not to mention another reactor at Tokai, even closer to Tokyo that is also leaking) wouldn’t discourage investment.

Investor psychology no doubt plays a huge role in determining the attractiveness and risk of any particular investment. I guess one could argue playing down the radiation risk is in the best interests of stability. Then again, just how truly stable can a market be if it requires a constant dose of reality-bending denial to function? The best and strongest markets are those with the most transparency.

Not so, might investors in BP claim. From its peak a year ago, their stock price hasn’t gone down at all, although it did suffer the effects of a theoretical liability for the spill of $20 billion (although only a portion of that has been distributed through 9-11 lawyer Feinberg.)

Slap a limit on liabilities and any polluter can pollute as much as they want. Then again, a company that can get away with polluting isn’t probably much of an investment. The pollution will eventually become a liability even if its impact can be mitigated in the short-run. Politicians come and go, and popular opinions can shift against companies with a track record of pollution. It only takes one Erin Brockovich or someone with balls to shift the way the wind blows.

I believe that the victims of BP’s spill ad TEPCO’s Fukushima are owed for the injuries they’ve sustained which include: forced relocation, loss of employment, loss of recreation, toxified air, contaminated groundwater, and loss of access to natural resources. These losses can be quantified. And even if they can be limited by executive action, legislative bodies can always come in later and change the law. This is called political risk.