The Tsunami and the Future

The stories from Japan about the damage the tsunami has done are tragic. The scale of the devastation is extraordinary; and due to the threat of leaking radiation, may get worse before it gets better. For many Americans, this tsunami feels even more upsetting because the country hardest hit was not some far away and poor country, like Haiti which an easily be dismissed as irrelevant to our lives. Japan is, like the US, an affluent northern country. Many Americans are familiar with Japanese culture and food; and the stories from Japan feel more relevant because the people lived in houses, drove cars and had lives not all too dissimilar from many of us in the US.

When tsunamis hit countries like Indonesia or India, earthquakes devastate poor countries like Haiti or floods cause enormous damage in places like like Pakistan it is easier for Americans to believe that these kinds of natural disasters cannot happen here, or that when they do we will be better prepared than people in less wealthy countries. Hurricane Katrina should have taught Americans the folly of that that particular delusion, but even Katrina did most of its damage to a poor and largely non-white area, thus allowing middle class Americans to hold on to the notion that it could not happen to them. The tsunami in Japan is another blow against that misguided belief. Additionally, as the US, for political and economic reasons, continues to deconstruct the trappings of modern statehood, it is likely that we will be less prepared for these kinds of disasters.

The tsunami also should remind everybody of the increasing environmental frailty facing all of us. Earthquakes and tsunamis are not the kinds of extreme weather events to which global climate change contributes, but as climate change continues it is likely that hurricanes and other storms, for example, will become more frequent and stronger. The damage to the Japanese nuclear facility, which has not yet been controlled, is an even starker reminder of the risks involved in continuing a lifestyle oriented around increasing consumption. The fear generated by the potential nuclear event in Japan will also exacerbate dependence on coal, oil, natural gas and other resources as governments may become more concerned about the safety of nuclear energy.

The combination of continued population growth, the rumblings of global climate change and consistently increasing demands for all resources including energy, but also for water and land makes all of us particularly vulnerable to natural disasters like the one we have just witnessed. The tsunami should help demonstrate the import of investing in infrastructure and preparing for contingencies, but even doing these things will not be enough.

As we have seen from Japan, while these preparations can help, they cannot prevent the terrible consequences of a tsunami, earthquake or other disasters. Although Japan's infrastructure probably saved thousands of lives, this does not make the loss of thousands of lives any less tragic or horrific. Moreover, these precautionary steps only are short term solutions which do not address the broader global problems of energy dependence and consumption which make all of us vulnerable.

While helping the Japanese recover from this tragedy and contain whatever radioactivity that can be contained is the most urgent and immediate priority, the tsunami could also be a time to accelerate a national, or even global dialog about the future of life on an increasingly crowded planet given to increasingly dramatic weather events. The tsunami should be a reminder of the need to secure alternate and safer sources of energy as well as the need to consume less.

The peril of the dependence on foreign oil has been part of our national political and security discussion for a few years now. Many people recognize that driving big low mileage cars and flying so much, for example, weakens the position of the US and gives authoritarians from the Middle East to Russia and beyond far more influence over us than we would like. This, however, is only a piece of the overall cost of a heavily consumerist resource intensive global culture. All of the ways we produce energy involve either substantial risks, of either technological or scientific nature, or widespread environmental degradation, but as long as our energy needs grow, we have little choice but to pursue various risky or unsafe means of getting this energy.

Making any kind of meaningful change in this regard will be extremely difficult, but is even more difficult in a political climate in which one party has an almost principled resistance to scientific realities and where both parties, albeit perhaps for different reasons, are unable or unwilling to suggest that unlimited production and consumerism may not, in the long run, be the best thing for the survival of our species and planet.