Hubris, Fukushima, and Our Future

by Miki Kashtan

Despite decades of news fasting, I have been following the situation at Fukushima quite closely since the earthquake on March 11th. I am neither an expert on the field, nor do I think that there is much that hasn’t been said already about the situation, and so I don’t plan to say a whole lot about the situation itself. What I want to write about instead is how the situation is being talked about – or not, as the case may be.

Reporting about Fukushima

For the first number of days, updates about the situation appeared frequently. A Wikipedia article was created that kept a timeline of the events and was being updated many times a day.

In the last few days I see two developments in going in opposite directions. On the one hand the situation at Fukushima appears to me to be worsening. I hear of significantly higher doses of radiation showing up in more and more places. I hear of plutonium seeping into the ground. I hear of radiation-contaminated water preventing access to cooling the reactors, and of an incredibly delicate balancing act between keeping the contaminated water from overflowing and keeping the reactors cool enough. I hear of partial meltdowns and possible nuclear fission that’s happened. I hear of no clear big-picture plan for how to turn things around. I hear of decisions that had been made that are now being questioned. I even hear of the government considering taking control of the plant because of dissatisfaction with the efforts on the part of TEPCO, the plant operator.

On the other hand the updates are less and less frequent, and are less and less prominent in the news.

I struggle to make sense of this. It’s far from the first time I have had a similar experience. I have noticed that in general we only hear about some place in the world when there is war or other disasters, and then that place disappears. This time, though, we are less about a situation that’s continuing to get worse. Why is that? Is it because someone, somewhere, decided that the situation in Libya is “more important” and therefore the instability and protracted crisis in Fukushima is demoted? Is it because someone, somewhere, decided that people don’t have the attention span?

I don’t have answers. I just know I find this unsettling.

Thinking about Fukushima

Early on in the unfolding of the Fukushima tragedy, someone sent me a link to Brave New Climate – a blog written by Barry Brook, an Australian professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences. The general message of that blog is that the way of the future is nuclear, and that nuclear is the only antidote to climate change. As I read the original post, still struggling to make sense of anything that I was hearing about Fukushima, I found the attempt to reassure me that “there is no credible risk of a serious accident” did not reassure me in the least. Two days later Barry wrote the following: “My initial estimates of the extent of the problem, on March 12, did not anticipate the cascading problems that arose from the extended loss of externally sourced AC power to the site, and my prediction that ‘there is no credible risk of a serious accident’ has been proven quite wrong as a result. It remains to be seen whether my forecast on the possibility of containment breaches and the very low level of danger to the public as a result of this tragic chain of circumstances will be proven correct. For the sake of the people there, I sure hope it does stand the test of time.”

Being a scientist, after looking at the facts two days later, Barry admitted his error on the factual level. I don’t see any evidence, nor have I seen any since then, that he is questioning his process of thinking. From my perspective, if his prediction was wrong once, it could be wrong again, both about his immediate prediction, as well as about his overall approach to nuclear power.

I confess to having been haunted and obsessed by Barry’s blog. I haven’t given up hope that he and the many people commenting on his blog will start questioning their beliefs based on the increasing severity of the situation and their continuing inability to predict (as I understand things; I could be misinterpreting the severity or their predictions or both). For now, the general tone I have heard is that Fukushima is providing proof that the future is nuclear. The reason as I understand it from what I read is that every form of energy has risks, and that an accident like Fukushima has minimal risk compared to, say, the risks of using coal. Barry sees nuclear waste, for example, as an economic boon, a source of cheap energy for future nuclear plants that can use it. He also believes that renewable energy is not going to pan out as a serious alternate source of energy, and hence concludes that nuclear energy is the only alternative to climate change. The possibility of reducing consumption, even drastically, as a way to address climate change, is not part of the conversation on his blog.

What Do We Learn from Errors?

Ancient Greek tragedies contain numerous examples of hubris, which is often a reference to “actions of those who challenged the gods or their laws … resulting in the protagonist’s downfall.” (Wikipedia article) In modern parlance hubris is equated with a certain kind of pride or arrogance.

For some reason I cannot completely fathom, Barry’s error and his way of thinking about it have become a symbol for me of a particular form of hubris. We have come to believe that we can control nature, subjugate it to our wishes, and predict the results. We have come to believe that science and technology can offer solutions to every problem, even those caused by technology itself. We have come to idolize a certain form of “rational” thinking and to look down on emotions, needs, intuition, bodies.

I am scared by this kind of thinking. I care deeply about our species and about nature. I want us to thrive, and I want us to thrive within nature’s capacity. I see the way of thinking symbolized by Barry’s blog as having brought us, collectively, to the very challenging place we are in as a species. I am nervous to be writing this, and I still want to take the risk of doing it, because I am so desperately hoping that we will find a way to wake up and change course.

As I said earlier, I am not making any pronouncement about nuclear power and certainly not any predictions about Fukushima. I am worried, despite not having predictions, because substances that remain toxic for tens of thousands of years frighten me, especially when I read that no adequate solution has been found so far for storing the waste from nuclear reactors, Barry’s cheerful ideas about using nuclear waste notwithstanding. Worried or not, what I am most struggling to embrace, against the legacy that I, too, was born and trained in, is humility, the attitude of not knowing.

8 thoughts on “Hubris, Fukushima, and Our Future

  1. Judith L. Katz

    Miki, I love getting your take on current events. It meets needs for shared reality (around the fact of a worldly event that I, along with many other people, are tracking), and clarity (you have an way of putting things that are hard for me to say into words). Thank you.

  2. Franklin2

    Thank you, Miki. I really appreciate your willingness to share your uncertainty and to question the idea that the thinking that created a challenge will find a resolution of the challenge.

    I too want all life to thrive within the capacity of life systems, and value your work in modelling a different communications process and a different relationship model, more 'we' than &#39

  3. Elkie Deadman

    Hi miki,
    I am feeling so gratfeul for this post.

    I feel so frustrated sometimes and confused by what I experiece as the 'hubris' that you describe.

    And then…I go digging down into my empathy…empathy for what I am experiencing and also for the people that are triggering the confusion nad anger in me…cos I really have the sense that if I don't get

  4. John Backman

    What an important post, Miki. I worry a lot about hubris: we seem to be living in an age of it–in which our experts and pundits are too quick to proclaim certainty and too slow to consider how much we DON'T know. I'm not one to see divine judgment in natural disasters, but I wonder whether, as a species, the lesson of humility might be the one best lesson we can take away from the horror

  5. performs

    Miki, your theme of hubris/humility reminds me of the lyrics to a song I wrote about a decade ago.

    Ignorance, Arrogance and Greed

    Ignorance, arrogance and greed,
    exactly what we don't need
    more of.
    But an increase in humility,
    reverence and generosity
    would fulfill our great need
    for love.

    For love is surely the remedy

  6. Ronnie Hausheer

    I am so glad that you wrote about Fukushima. I too, have been surprised by the scarcity of information on the situation after the first few days. I spent several hours looking for updates about a week after the earthquake and found nothing that wasn't 3 days old. How can that be? When I connect with the day-to-day, hour-to-hour fear and pain of the Japanese people, I find it so

  7. Rebecca

    Thanks for posting this. Although I have been traveling and unable to watch the news much, I have noticed this lack of information about this worsening disaster. What I have also noticed, especially because I am in New Zealand (and was in Christchurch when the quake hit there), is that the world has forgotten us down here because of the bigger disaster in Japan. I do not want to downplay the

  8. Floyd

    Hi Miki, I'm appreciating this as a real contribution. I really appreciate your distinction between admitting to having been wrong on a factual level, yet not stopping to consider the process that led to the wrong prediction.

    I'll be meeting soon, on behalf of Transition San Francisco, with an official of the Long Now foundation – technofixers all, and nuclear power boosters.


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