The biggest recorded earth-quake arrived off the coast of Japan, a place much accustomed to such tectonic shifts, sitting as it does directly along the Pacific Rim “Ring of Fire,” and in a handful of minutes unleashed a tsunami of epic proportions. The news at the moment I write suggests a thousand and some dead, though the images caught by cell phones and little HD cameras surely tells another story, of tens of thousands or perhaps 100′s of thousands. Meantime two nuclear reactors, sitting on the shoreline, are spewing radioactivity, their cooling systems ruptured. Authorities tell bland stories seeking to calm the fractured nerves of the populace, though each passing hour seems to betray their assurances.
Japan, historically habituated to the jangled reality of plate tectonics, in some measure has done about as much as possible to deal with the physical effects of earthquakes. It has strict construction and engineering codes, intended to adequately deal with the motions incurred when a part of the crust of our earth slips against a neighboring piece, and as occurred during this earthquake many of the tall skyscrapers of Tokyo swayed back and forth, built flexibly, like an airplane wing, to absorb the energies unleashed, and to dissipate them in movement. Doubtless for the occupants of those buildings the effect was nauseous, but far better than were they rigid and had simply broken up and collapsed.
Yet, “in some measure” proves not adequate in the face of what nature can really throw at us once in a while. The only defense against the tsunami that ravaged the north east coast of Honshu, would simply be to not populate it. A low lying coastal plain, good for agriculture on a very crowded mostly mountainous island, this was simply not an option. And even the most solid of seawalls would have done nothing meaningful in the face of the tsunami that hit them. Cars and trains, whole neighborhoods of houses and factories – all were bandied about by the forces as if playthings. It is then just a gamble to live there, a gamble the Japanese have little choice about making.
In the 19th century, Japan, previously isolated by choice, in the face of the Western intrusions, chose to compete on Western terms. It industrialized, and is in this time perhaps the most industrialized area of the world. The computer I am writing on was made there, as are the cameras I shoot with, and many other things I have come from this powerhouse. Yet, beyond the energy and discipline of its people, Japan has little to warrant its industrialization in terms of natural resources: it has no oil, its habitable and arable land is very limited by its geography, it lacks many other natural resources which most other industrial nations possess. Japan must import almost everything except for the labor that goes into its industrial manufacturing. It was a choice, an elemental one, which has guided Japanese politics ever since. It was Japan’s Faustian bargain with the future – to make itself utterly dependent on the import of almost everything it requires to be an industrialized society. And in turn this guided such decisions as to build nuclear reactors adjacent to the fault-lines which guaranteed major earthquakes would arrive at some time. As we have seen in the last days, even the most stringent of engineering does not suffice to make such plants “safe” in such conditions. As the map above shows, Japan is littered with nuclear energy plants. Nuclear power now provides about 30% of Japan’s energy “needs.” Most of the rest is from oil (50%) and coal (15%). Almost all of this must be imported.
The US, though on the West coast accustomed to earthquakes, has done far less in legislating construction requirements, or other measures intended to cope with these events and their consequences. There is no question that an earthquake near the intensity of the in Japan will strike the US, perhaps most likely along the Pacific Coast, but perhaps on the Madrid fault-line in the Mid-West. With far less precaution taken in engineering, or even utter thoughtlessness in their placement – I recall in the early 70′s construction was begun on a plant in Bodega Bay, the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, on a lovely site overlooking the Pacific, and after they had begun to dig the foundations it was halted, not for being an aesthetic insult, but because it sat directly on top of a major fault-line, one that had jumped laterally 8-12 feet in some places in the San Francisco Earthquake of 1909 – America could expect far more catastrophic consequences both to the nuclear plants, and architecture in general, in an equivalent shake. However, despite the forewarning provided by this week’s events, one doubts that real measures will be taken to reinforce architecture, or perhaps close down certifiably dangerous power plants, even though there is, in the longer run, a 100% assurance that a catastrophe will strike.
It will be interesting to see if in the coming time the Japanese, being a far more social/collective culture, have second thoughts on their bargain with the future, and begin to dismantle their nuclear stations and perhaps even conclude that the costs of industrialization are in fact fatal for them. In America, it is almost assured that our capitalist and “individualist” ethic will result in little being done for the communal welfare in this regard: the power stations will remain (or multiply if some have their way); architectural engineering will be as cheap as profit-making allows, and one day the price will be paid.
In light of the most recent word on the reactors, here is a map of potential fall-out:
See this for a remarkable example of both the technological capacities of our time, and of the power of nature to wash them away. One day the sun will in its death throws explode and obliterate all the planets spinning around it; we will have very long before departed. Sic transit etc.
[This item in the NY Times seems to suggest I am not the only one thinking perhaps Japan should consider stepping out of the technological industrial race and trying just to make a society for people to be happy.]
[Little update note, August 24, 2011: in Paris saw my friend Toshi Fujiwara's new film, No Man's Zone, in late editing - he went to the Fukushima area about 3 weeks after the quake, and has made what I anticipate to be a very strong film on the devastation, the effects on local people, the duplicitous ways of government and corporations.]