Search the news for the word "meltdown" these days and you'll probably get one of three main hits: the situation in Japan; the economy; and Charlie Sheen. Take a guess which one is most likely to occupy peoples' attention spans and fill the pages of tabloids going forward? Celebrity gossip is a powerful palliative for troubled times, and most of us know about as much behind the science of nuclear reactions as we do about the inner workings of the economy. Sheen? We know him all too well...
So it's not surprising that calamitous events -- from the BP gusher to the "long hard slog" of Afghanistan -- slip beneath the collective radar and result in almost no widespread changes in modern society. The war drags on and the crude is in our food, yet few seem all that outwardly concerned. With the economy, at least there's been a bit of push-back of late, but across the U.S. the malls are still open for business-as-usual and CEOs are laughing all the way to the bank with record bonuses.
What will it take to overcome the cultural doldrums of apathy and distraction? The Japanese disaster weaves together a number of common threads that could serve to jolt people out of their complacency if the knowledge was widely disseminated -- but unless a cloud of radioactive death arrives in America, that seems unlikely to occur. After all, we live in such an egocentric culture that commentators like CNBC's Larry Kudlow can blithely utter callous statements about Japan and still remain on the air: "The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll, and we can be grateful for that."
The same forces that would centralize the economy in the name of productivity and security are likewise behind the centralization of energy production. Even as it is being touted as a "green" and "carbon-neutral" source, nuclear power is the antithesis of potential small-scale evolutions in solar and wind power. Few of us could operate a nuclear reactor, and the very workings of the technology are beyond the technical capacities of the populace. This breeds an utter dependency upon not only the suppliers of such energy, but also upon the information (both pre- and post-catastrophe) they are supplying to us.
In the case of Japan in particular, this horrifying episode is all-too-reminiscent of the images following the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII. One might think that a nation as beset as Japan was in the aftermath -- whose effects lingered for decades -- might have entirely forsworn anything to do with the nuclear enterprise. But the impetus of corporate-financed, government-subsidized, and highly centralized energy production is difficult to resist, both for its political and electrical potentials. Still, with its innovative technical capacities, Japan surely could have used the last three score years to develop a model of truly green energy production to set a template for other nations of the world to follow.
Now, we are realizing a different lesson coming out of Japan, namely a cautionary tale about the true nature of nuclear power. Humankind simply has no business literally "playing with fire" in terms of technologies that exceed our ability to manage their full implications. With oil, natural gas, and the like, we are already pushing (and likely exceeding) the envelope when it comes to our absorptive capacities to cope with the worst results of drilling, spilling, fires, and emissions. Nuclear energy takes this human haplessness even further, leaving us mute before wastes that spew for millennia, putting us at the mercy of technocrats lacking a mitigation plan when disaster inevitably strikes, and feeding its byproducts back into a war machine that stands forever on the edge of annihilating us all. We simply cannot abide the values embedded in the "nuclear state" and its political and economic appurtenances.
In a bygone day, lone voices such as Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader called out the looming disasters being fostered by our growing dependence upon untested and unwise technological interventions. Nader's screed on the automotive industry made him a household name, and brought to the public consciousness for the first time in a widespread manner the essential notion that all was not as it seemed in advertisements and corporate showrooms. His thesis still holds true today, and the preface to Unsafe at Any Speed contains more than a few overtones that speak directly to the issues of our time:
For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury, and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people.... [T]he true mark of a humane society must be what it does about prevention of accident injuries, not the cleaning up of them afterward.... The roots of the unsafe vehicle problem are so entrenched that the situation can be improved only by the forging of new instruments of citizen action.... A great problem of contemporary life is how to control the power of economic interests which ignore the harmful effects of their applied science and technology.... Our society's obligation to protect the 'body rights' of its citizens with vigorous resolve and ample resources requires the precise, authoritative articulation and front-rank support which is being devoted to civil rights.... A principal reason why the automobile has remained the only transportation vehicle to escape being called to meaningful public account is that the public has never been supplied the information nor offered the quality of competition to enable it to make effective demands through the marketplace and through government for a safe, nonpolluting and efficient automobile....
Nader's incisive logic applies equally to nuclear power -- and furthermore to the workings of the military-industrial complex with which it is intimately intertwined. We can also extend the lesson to our economic and political systems, which likewise operate without "being called to meaningful public account," and have by now become "so entrenched that the situation can be improved only by the forging of new instruments of citizen action." With the advent of popular uprisings around the world, and a nascent equivalent potentially emerging in places like Wisconsin, the time is ripe for citizen action to directly confront the growing behemoth that is ceaselessly rendering us as mere dependents. The main question now is whether people power is stronger than nuclear power, and all that it represents.