Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Fukushima vs. the Romance of the Telescope

Last summer I was taking a train across Europe with my wife. It was a minor dream of mine that I’d found myself suddenly able to realise: To take a trans-Europe express whilst listening to the album Trans-Europe Express by Kraftwerk. It was a silly dream, and taking a thirteen-hour train ride from Berlin to Paris, followed by several more hours on trains before we arrived in Bath, instead of just flying made it an extraordinarily inefficient use of time, but what use are dreams, even dumb ones, if you don’t seize the chance to make them real?

As we moved out of the Berlin suburbs into the countryside, one of the most striking things was the way the farmland was spotted with wind turbines. Wherever you looked, you saw these vast, white electricity-generating windmills scattered across the fields, in between the occasional cluster of old farm buildings and cottages.

Now I know there are lots of issues about wind power – the unpredictability of generating capacity from day to day, the hidden carbon cost of building them and then the gas power required to back them up during periods with low wind, the supposed noise pollution problems, the visual impact on the environment, and the cost in government subsidies that presumably explains why German farmers were so eager to have them on their land in the first place. Nevertheless, there was something powerful about the image that I couldn’t put into words. Something I don’t feel when seeing electricity pylons, something to do with the clean, smooth simplicity of the design, standing proudly artificial in nature’s midst (we’re pretending that farmland counts as natural here, and I hope you’ll forgive me) while at the same time working together with nature’s most elementary forces to create energy. The economics and hidden problems aside, the image itself just felt right. I turned to my wife, motioned to her to look, and she said in two words what I had been unable to say:

“ちょうサイバー” (“Very cyber!”)

Which brings me onto what I really wanted to talk about here, which is the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the anti-nuclear protest movement.

One of the problems I’ve had in processing the impact of Fukushima and the subsequent protest movement, I’ve come to realise, is that it cuts through two powerful prejudices that I have. These are things I strongly believe and can back up with cold, hard reasoning, but I call them prejudices nonetheless because they are principles that I feel emotionally, in my gut before I even think about bringing reason to the table. The first is my instinctive support for any protest movement that goes up against a conservative establishment. I’m a lefty and I feel an instinctive sense of solidarity with any left-wing or left-aligned political or social movements. When I see policemen in Shinjuku battering protestors, or yakuza-backed fascist groups staging counter-demonstrations designed to intimidate and warn off ordinary people from joining in, I get a deep red mist. When I learn about politicians, media and big business collaborating behind the scenes, cutting corners on safety, collaborating to conceal information and spread lies, when I see the establishment’s ranks closing to protect its own interests at the expense of ordinary people, and when I see public figures who try to do something about it demonised and driven from their positions, I feel automatic support for whoever it is that could get such contemptible people so scared and angry.

People sometimes ask, “Where is Japan’s ‘Occupy’ movement?” Certainly when people here tried to stage sympathetic protests last summer, they passed largely unattended. However, in many ways Japan’s anti-nuclear movement is already their Occupy Wall Street. Like “Occupy”, it is a protest that cuts to the heart of the incestuous, undemocratic and destructive relationship between business, media and government, and like “Occupy”, it is an outpouring of public anger that could only come from people who have finally felt a real-life, tangible impact on their own lives as a clear result of this dysfunctional collusion within the establishment. With this, I can’t help but feel sympathy. It’s something I believe strongly on an intellectual level, but it is something that first and foremost I feel emotionally. It is a prejudice – a correct one, I believe, but a prejudice nonetheless.

However, on the issue of nuclear power, my left-wing sensibilities come up against another prejudice of mine. I am an unashamed lover of science fiction – no expert, admittedly, but I definitely lean geekwards – and my feelings towards nuclear power itself are emotionally influenced by my sense of wonder at the science itself. It angers me when people on Twitter and other places insist on referring to nuclear energy as “nukes” – a slang term associated primarily with nuclear weapons (like referring to a kitchen knife as a “shiv”, it strikes me as disingenuous – both can cause harm, but only one is designed for the purpose and it seems unfair to conflate them).

On an intellectual level I might ask myself about the wisdom of building nuclear power plants in an area with as much seismic activity as Japan. Nuclear power has with it a lot of the same financial, local and visual impact issues as wind power, coupled with massively more serious pollution, waste disposal, health and safety issues. I’m not going to argue those points. Still though, like wind power, the wonder of it – the romantic image of mankind harnessing the awesome power of the atom – takes my breath away.

Now given the very real suffering of people just a couple of hundred kilometres from where I live in Tokyo and the (I’m going to stick my neck out and guess probably less real, although the government/media/TEPCO axis do little to reassure on that) fears of many in the Tokyo/Yokohama area, such airy, wistful ideas will seem frivolous, facetious, even irresponsible. I accept that my reasons as outlined above are not good ones. As I say, this is a prejudice and my purpose in examining it is to find the emotional source of my instinctive reaction.

But once again, I believe, after thinking and taking into account what I know to be my instinctive biases, that I do still support nuclear power, although whether I support its continued long-term use in earthquake-prone Japan, I am far less sure. The devastation to the Fukushima region is horrifying, but nothing compared to the devastation to the whole world being wrought by our continued reliance on fossil fuels. Many of the problems at the plant and most of the possible dangers to Tokyo seem to come primarily from human failures (and I use this term deliberately – TEPCO etc. should not be allowed to pass off their oversights and systemic corruption as mere “errors”. They, the government and all who colluded with them and continue to do so failed as human beings on this), not failures of the science of nuclear energy itself. At least the fears that sent ultra-wealthy Japanese scampering for Hawaii and Hong Kong, and caused such bitterness and division within Tokyo's foreign community seem not to have been as serious as many worried they were at the time. To hate the corruption but love the science – yes, I am such a naïve romantic.

But whenever I think about nuclear power, or indeed wind, solar, any exciting new technology, I always find it is the sci-fi romanticist in me that leads my thoughts, that chooses their path, with the rational part of my mind following behind saying, “And that could also have useful social implications,” and things like that. When I see protests calling for an end to nuclear energy, I cheer on their attacks on government and industrial corruption, but my stomach knots with fear. What will happen if these protests result in funding cuts for research into fusion power? In my mind I see spaceships with massive fusion reactors bound for Mars and a little bit of me thinks, “This! This is what you’re protesting against, you fools! Can’t you see how beautiful it is?”

In truth, since very few of us, including the journalists we rely on to explain these things, really understand enough about nuclear physics, nearly all of our reactions to the Fukushima crisis are driven by such instinctive and emotional factors. The fear of deadly, poisonous radiation that can be neither seen, heard nor smelt is a powerful factor, the distrust of government, media and big business may lead some to feel that the science itself is corrupted by association, or perhaps that humans are too intrinsically corrupt to be trusted with such power. In these emotional responses, we can see folkloric themes play themselves out. The Biblical themes of Original Sin, or the Tower of Babel are powerful stories that evoke our fears of human weakness or hubris, the tales of Prometheus or of Faust can inspire hope or fear in the search for knowledge, fairytales are infested with shadowy evil that slips unseen and unheard through your window at night. Science-fiction embodies all these themes, as well as spinning its own myths about the power of technology to shape the future of mankind. Even when we are presented with the facts, but especially when our knowledge lacks, these age-old and not-so-old themes still carry emotional resonance.

In this way, just as it is irrational to let fear of the unknown or poorly understood dictate our response to Fukushima, so it is also irrational to think that merely by supporting "science" one is being scientific. We pick through the snippets of information in the media, desperately try to recall our school science education, skim Wikipedia articles, and we may think we understand, but unless we are prepared to wade through thousands of pages of data and read dozens of scientific papers, unless we're prepared to deal with the information at our disposal scientifically, all we're really doing is sifting through mountains of stuff that we don't really understand, looking for things that "feel right" (i.e. that confirm our pre-existing, emotionally driven prejudices). Someone like me may well want to argue that by taking the part of science, one is arguing a more positive and utopian ideal, but that is all I am doing.

In a sense, this is simply a long way of saying that it's probably for the best that I'm not the person in charge of determining energy policy for Japan over the next fifty years. On the other hand, I don't think that upon recognising our biases over this issue we should disavow responsibility either. It is such a lovely feeling to be able to say, "If only an expert could handle this stuff, then all these stupid politicians who we elected wouldn't be able to mess things up," but our prejudices often lead us to be selective about which "experts" we choose to believe. I do believe that we don't give enough respect to scientific data, and believe that peer-reviewed science should carry more weight in public life than the populist ranting of news media, the moralistic fantasies of religion or the cynical lies of industry lobbyists. Still, these feelings that I have been characterising as prejudices are also rooted in stories that contain genuine insights into human character and the consequences of human actions. Without being dogmatic about them, they are useful tools in enabling us as people to make judgments about the kind of world we are in and the kind of world we want to make.

The events at Fukushima are a tragedy, and the nuclear industry should clearly be (and I hope it is) asking serious questions of itself rather than simply circling the wagons in anticipation of resuming corrupt business as usual. But my fervent hope is that in its aftermath, we aren't left with a world where we look at technology with only cynicism and fear. For this sci-fi geek at least, technology should be a source of hope for the betterment of mankind, we should be able to separate the corruption of the government-media-industrial triad from the promise offered by science, and I hope we are able to deal with the problems, the risks, and the harsh practicalities of technology without losing sight of the dreams of science, of the romance of the telescope.