Industrialized Civilization and its Accidents
16 March 2011
Previously in Impossible Desires I attempted to point out some of the ways in which industrial accidents are intrinsic to industrialized civilization. The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan that has caused so much death and destruction is a particular case in point. Japan has one of the most advanced industrialized economies on the planet. It is second to none in the development and implementation of high technology. Moreover, the Japanese are especially meticulous in all their endeavors, whether in aesthetics or technology. Visit a Japanese garden and you will see the meticulous care with which supports have been added to a tree limb so that it can continue to grow; visit a Japanese workplace and you will see the care the goes into completing the simplest task; visit a Japanese restaurant and you will see the meticulous care with which your meal is prepared. On this basis alone I would suggest that there probably was no more meticulously designed, built, and operated nuclear power plant in the world than the Tokyo Electric Power Co. Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
Even the high standards of Japanese industry did not prevent the Dai Ichi Power Station from multiple failures in consequence of the massive earthquake and tsunami. This story is ongoing as I write. There hasn’t been a meltdown of any of the reactor cores, but there have been multiple explosions and the failure of many systems. Radiation has leaked but it is unlikely that Fukushima will be another Chernobyl — though perhaps if this had been Russian technology it might have been another comparable catastrophe.
In the past, civilizations of the agricultural paradigm were also vulnerable to natural disasters, though these disasters primarily effected the central economic activity — agriculture — of this form of civilization. Starvation was an ever-present worry, as agricultural production was always scarcely able to keep the population fed. A natural disaster like a flood would routinely lead to localized hardship.
Natural disasters continue to interrupt the primary economic activity of our civilization, but that primary activity is now industrial production, not agricultural production. Industrialized civilization has a robust transportation network, so that disasters can be relieved from outside the local area. Moreover, nation-states like Japan with long histories of particular kinds of natural disasters (in this case, earthquakes) have elaborate mechanism in place to come to the aid of survivors and to ameliorate suffering to the extent possible.
After the dead have been buried and mourned, after the television crews have moved along to the next natural disaster, and after the donations from the rest of the world begin to trickle down as money flows elsewhere, the long term effect of the disaster will be economic. It will take decades to rebuild the inundated area, and this will be both an economic hardship for some, especially those who lost everything, even while it will be an economic boom to others — construction companies, for example.
Natural disasters will always be with us, and will eventually finish us off. Even if we have to wait for the sun to go nova, or for the cosmos either to implode or run down, a natural disaster will get us in the end. Moreover, as we have seen above, in the context of human civilization a natural disaster is translated into an economic crisis that manifests itself in a way specific to the kind of civilization that suffers the natural disaster. Each kind of civilization has its own kind of ecological succession by which it attempts to rebuild its climax ecosystem, and for a civilization its climax ecosystem is an economic system constructed on the basis of a particular civilizational paradigm.
We can take measures we lessen the destruction of natural disasters, but we are ultimately part of the natural world and have no alternative but to accept whatever it throws at us. For an industrialized civilization that means that natural disasters will lead to industrial accidents such as we have seen at Fukushima. It would be just as pointless to fault the construction or safety standards of the Fukushima nuclear facilities as it would be to fault the very existence of the industry. Certainly we could have continued industrial development without nuclear power, but the larger truth here is that, given the fact of industrialized civilization, we have to have some kind of energy infrastructure capable of supplying electricity to almost six billion people. If it wasn’t nuclear power, it would be some other source of electricity.
Industrial accidents are intrinsic to industrialized civilization, just as agricultural failures are intrinsic to agricultural civilization. Many of the picturesque abandoned cities of the ancient past were the ceremonial or administrative centers of agricultural civilizations that experienced catastrophic agricultural failures, and not a few of these failures were probably caused by natural disasters.
Just as nature yields to the pressures of civilization, so civilization in turn yields to the depredations of nature. Both nature and civilization are complex adaptive systems, and each seeks resilience in the face of unintended consequences forced upon it by its relation to the other.
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