22 March 2011

Two maladies infecting the Japan disasters

Popular perception of the Japanese disasters and the Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis is afflicted with two common maladies: media sensationalism, and anti-modern admonishments against human hubris (because supposedly it was pride in our technological prowess that brought us low). Against these twin poisons, Kenan Malik’s article is the antidote. Malik makes the distinction between two catastrophes: the physical one in Japan, and the mental one fabricated by the media. It is the second ‘catastrophe’ that is infected with the aforementioned maladies.

The first, media hype and scaremongering, is as old as rumour. With the Fukushima crisis, hot-button words like ‘meltdown’ and ‘Chernobyl’ are carelessly deployed by reporters without context or detailed explanation. Too often the emphasis is on inducing panic, not dispensing reassurance. As Malik put it, “Meltdown, it seems, has taken place not just in the reactor cores but in commentators’ ability to put the disaster into perspective.”

The second malady, anti-modern and anti-technology sentiments, is a vestige of the Industrial Revolution, when the rural, agrarian section of society conflicted with growing urbanity and mechanisation, a growth fostered by new ‘modern’ technologies. Anti-modernists get off on scolding humanity for presuming that it could, through the application of reason, science and blue-sky thinking, submit nature to its benefit. Whenever humanity’s technological achievements are humbled by nature, New Age woo-mongers, neo-Luddites, posturing bohemians with broken irony meters and various other critics of modernity are all quick with the ‘I-told-you-so’s and schadenfreude. Yet if it wasn’t for technologies like vaccines and antibiotics, scientific breakthroughs like the Green Revolution in agriculture, developments in computer hardware, software and information systems, and advancements in civil engineering, humanity’s lot would have been considerably less pleasant. But die-hard romantics and hypocrites ignore this fact, all the while benefitting from the very modernity they scorn.

A subset of anti-modern attitudes is the unreasonable expectation that our technologies be 100 percent foolproof. It’s not enough that risks in almost every area of human endeavour are being continually reduced; the anti-modernists demand that there be absolutely no risk at all. Whether it’s vaccines or nuclear power plants, anything less than a total guarantee of safety is viewed as a moral failure. And since this kind of guarantee is impossible, it leaves the creators and promoters of beneficial technologies open to vindictive attack from those who have had the bad luck of being in the tiny minority harmed by such technologies.

The current situation in Japan is certainly tragic. There is indeed a level of danger posed by the Fukushima crisis. But what goes unmentioned is the fact that millions of people in Japan have been saved or spared the worst thanks to building codes and technologies that made houses and public infrastructure able to withstand an earthquake, and rendered nuclear power stations less vulnerable to disaster than they would otherwise have been. Bear in mind that this recent earthquake is the fifth largest ever recorded. For all the foresight of Japanese legislators and engineers, they could not be expected to have anticipated an earthquake – and resulting tsunami – of such destructive force. Given the unprecedented scale of the disaster, that not more lives were lost or more damage sustained is a thought given insufficient appreciation.

One doesn’t need to reject humanity’s technological accomplishments in order to recognise the tragedy of what occurred in Japan. Yes, there are surely lessons to be learned, improvements to be made, mistakes to avoid repeating. But as Malik writes:

The moral, not just of Fukushima but of the Japanese disaster itself, is not that we are fated to let ‘nature rule’, still less that human hubris has brought us to the brink of civilizational disaster, but that human ingenuity and organization alone has helped prevent a far worse catastrophe. What is all too often dismissed as ‘human hubris’ is in fact the very quality required, not just to protect us from the rage of nature, but also to help create a more civilized life.



  1. Far from a vestige of olden days, skepticism of technology is more apt now than ever before--and the Fukushima disaster, while horrific, may be only a minor beacon of the real disaster at hand. The underlying problem is technotalitarianism (see my blog for details). Don't fall too hard for the seductions of technology, please. And please don't try to shame those of us who maintain a critical stance toward it.

  2. Parke, I'm no techno-utopian. And I certainly don't think that modern society is 'the best of all possible worlds'. I share your critical views of crass forms of pop culture, inane uses of social networking technology and blind exploitation of nature and people.

    But I disagree with your rather pessimistic and cynical views concerning modern systems of commerce and production/distribution of goods and services (i.e. capitalism), the democratic and meritocratic values underlying such systems, and the obvious benefits, materially and psychologically, that they provide to billions of people.

    Of course, evidence both for and against modernity are readily at hand for anyone arguing for either position. Fundamentally, it's a matter of personal temperament. I'm more optimistic than you regarding humanity's material and ethical progress with the aid of science and technology.

    Kenan Malik has written at length about the conflict between what he calls 'ecomysticism' and progressive science. I recommend you read it, because Malik cogently rebuts the naturalistic fallacy commonly made by many critics of modernity, including yourself. While he (rightfully) cautions against having unquestioning faith in science, Malik articulates my view in this paragraph, which relates to the pro-technology arguments put forward in my post:

    There are few things more human than science. To be human is to disturb the universe, to humanise it, to bend it to our will. Only through controlling nature, and of transcending nature, do we begin to realise ourselves as human beings, as creatures who make our history, rather than simply act it out. As the most effective way that we have of understanding, controlling and transforming nature, science is the crowning achievement of our humanity.