Some Japanese Live The Real Lesson of Fukushima: 'Slow Down'

What happened at the Fukushima power plants was not a natural disaster. The danger of earthquakes and tsunamis in this area has been known for hundreds of years. Before the plant was built local citizens opposed it with lawsuits and protests. Their opposition was based on these exact concerns. Sooner or later it was bound to happen. This was a man-made disaster.

In the 15 years I was researching my book on Japanese people choosing a simpler, deeper way of life, I heard many of them trying to warn their neighbors and government officials about the perils of nuclear energy. Their critiques of nuclear power are both well researched and common sense.

One of them, Atsuko Watanabe, a mother and a local politician in her rural area said it this way: "Everyone has known for a long time that nuclear power is dangerous, and while we have known this, we've been choosing not to see it. But now we have to face it. The men in government knew that nuclear power was unsafe but they denied it, and now the disaster has come. They are still trying to minimize the danger." In fact, Japanese Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano stated at a news conference two days after the quake, "There is no risk to inhabitants of the area [Fukushima]."

So, with yet another spike in energy prices around the world, many of us might feel like we are in the crosshairs with no easy solutions.

In fact, that's right. There are no easy solutions. But there are some possible ones.

The men and women I have written about: engineers and artists, university professors and farmers--all ordinary Japanese citizens--lead productive and meaningful lives, spending lots of slow time with their families and contributing to their communities. They have chosen a solution that many in the US are increasingly taking up: radically reducing their energy consumption and providing for themselves as much as possible. Because the seven billion of us on the planet do not have enough resources to continue to live the way we do. But before we look more closely at the thinking behind this solution, let's quickly dispatch the common arguments for nuclear power, since the nuclear industry's PR machinery will soon be kicking into high gear on this anniversary of the Fukushima tragedy.

Nuclear power is not carbon neutral. It takes petroleum to mine the nuclear fuel, to refine it, and to transport it. Uranium is often dug up in huge open pit mines in areas inhabited by, and thus endangering, Native Americans and Australian aboriginal peoples. It takes huge amounts of petroleum-based resources to build the nuclear power station and to transport the waste. By their very nature nuclear power stations are targets for terrorists, and it takes tremendous human and material resources to guard and protect them. Areas of the earth in Ukraine and now Fukushima are abandoned wastelands. And if the Japanese, who are rightly renowned for their advanced engineering and their attention to detail, cannot operate nuclear plants safely, no one can. Furthermore, after 50 years of nuclear power, no one has yet discovered a solution to the problem of nuclear waste, waste that will have to be kept separate from all life forms for thousands of years. And although the nuclear industry is still asking for (and getting) huge subsidies from governments all over the world, Wall Street investors don't want to touch nuclear power with a ten foot pole.

On a more personal level, here in California where I live, my friend E. went through her third round of chemo this week. Her bright red hair fell out in clumps She has already gone through two surgeries on her breasts. It is in the nature of cancer that no one can prove if her malignant tumors were caused by Chernobyl, whose fallout blanketed the West Coast in 1986, or by the Chevron oil refineries, which pump out measurable carcinogens over the Bay Area, or by the particular bad luck of her genetic code. Nonetheless the epidemiological evidence is clear. Nuclear radiation leaks increase rates of cancer and birth defects.

But even if we could disregard all these known problems with nuclear power, the fact is that for something to be a solution to climate change--the most serious environmental issue we have ever faced--that solution must be fast, and it must be cheap. Nuclear power is neither.

Yet I'd like to argue that our solution is not simply more alternative energy. I think we need to look deeper. Back in 1999 when I was interviewing anti-nuclear activist San Oizumi after the Tokaimura accident (several workers dead soon afterwards, hundreds of local people with high-level dosages) he said something initially puzzling to me. We were sitting inside of the nuclear fallout shelter he had built behind his house, which he had converted into an underground Japanese tea ceremony room.

"Nuclear power," he said, "is inconsistent with the Way of Tea." Perplexed, I asked him what he meant.

"The ideal behind nuclear power is a limitless amount of free electricity lighting up every part of the planet. The ideal behind the Way of Tea is one of humility and poetic sentiments."

So, odd as it might seem, the solution I am suggesting is precisely that: "humility and poetic sentiments." What does it mean to be truly humble about our presence here on the earth, to bring an artistry of simplicity to our daily lives? It doesn't boil down to a simplification like "conservation."

It does start, though, with a radical reduction in consumption. Consumption is what we do with the ignition key, the thermostat, the appliance, the one-click purchase, the light switch, and the part of our paychecks that disappears into something disposable.

Humility is a training of the soul, to achieve within your day-to-day life the rich abundance implied by Less. And to achieve this despite the distractions and attractions is a victory of your spirit against the setup of the world as it is.

It means each one of us, by the millions, has to stop living like energy is limitless. Do we really need a endless supply of free electricity lighting up every part of the planet, even if we could have it? How would we live if we had to generate electricity ourselves? For me, it means tolerating being hotter in the summer and colder in the winter. I remember, as a boy, watching Jimmy Carter almost get laughed out of office for suggesting we wear a sweater instead of turning up the heat--and this after his own encounter with a nuclear disaster. The real answer is to slow down, enjoy the life we have, live (happily!) within our limits, and not contribute to the suffering of others and the destruction of the earth, our home. Have we heard this before? Yes. Is it a downer? Not at all.

Since I met these remarkable Japanese people who have been living for decades with much less money and material goods, with more time for themselves and a much richer interior life, I have tried to move in that direction too. Each step I've taken has made me a happier and more fulfilled person. You could do it too. It's not that hard.

Santa Cruz resident Andy Couturier is the author of "A Different Kind of Luxury: Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance" He teaches at The Opening: A Center for Courses in Writing in Oakland CA.