Japan is the most nuke-fearing country in the world—Hiroshima and Nagasaki saw to that, and Godzilla is one way they’ve taught their children to never forget. The Japanese take such care in making their skyscrapers, bridges and tunnels earthquake-proof that most of us assumed they’d go even further to protect their nuclear reactors... until those cores started melting down like knots on a fuse after Friday's tsunami.
So if nuclear meltdowns, partial or full, could happen there, they could happen anywhere, and all those pictures of cars and buildings bobbing in ink-black water like disaster-movie props carry a very immediate sense of warning. They're a reminder of just how fragile the whole world is—and how brittle are the mental containment systems we use to assure ourselves that whatever we're doing in the name of our way of life is safe, sane and right.
The enormity of the unfolding catastrophes in Japan is unnerving, but you don't have to be Pat Robertson to get the sense that it’s the exclamation mark at the end of a long and depressing sentence about global uncertainty. Afghanistan, Iraq, the financial collapse, unemployment—our military and economic woes have too often reinforced the power of those who led us into these disasters in the first place. At that point, we can seem as powerless to affect our fate as those three elderly Japanese trapped in a car for days after being washed up in a pile of debris by the tsunami.
Has any of this dampened the right’s enthusiasm for American exceptionalism, for “creating our own reality” as the biggest empire on the block? Not really. Some truths turned out to be inoperative—like, for example, that housing prices would always go up, or that we’d face a “mushroom cloud” if we didn’t send an army against Saddam. That a radioactive cloud is more likely to drift our way on prevailing air currents from nuclear reactors that we designed ourselves (GE designed six and built three of Fukushima’s disintegrating reactors) is so mind-boggling that it’s best dismissed as part of the left’s “agenda.” Which is what Glenn Beck did Monday, insisting that (perfectly rational) talk about Japan’s nuclear disaster is being fomented by none other than George Soros and the Tides Foundation.
These disasters, nuclear and otherwise, are going to happen, again and again, like oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. All around the globe, today’s economic leaders are making multibillion-dollar deals for energy—Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan gasification plants, offshore Nigerian wells—that will inevitably send tons of climate-changing gasses into the atmosphere over the lifetimes of the next several generations (and these deals will take generations to exhaust their value). Nothing will convince the people who have invested in these long-term projects that they could possibly be wrong, that we could, in fact, be living on an Easter Island of a planet spinning in space.
We’ve always had a hard time accepting facts that would stymie our lifestyle. The Easter Islanders did, too: When the disappearing forests were no longer salvageable, they didn’t make canoes to get off the island—they cut the remaining trees to make rollers to transport their giant stone heads, setting them up in supplication to ancestors who could not help them.
Maybe, instead of making massive commitments to safe, green energy projects, we should just erect a giant stone head of David Koch and sacrifice to it.