Archive for the ‘Fundamental Change’ Category

(G)rumbles from Tokyo

Another week, another dozen aftershocks.  Nothing super-serious, but the earth shaking around can put a spin on your daily routine.

Otherwise things are fine, though surreal at times.  I was commuting from one job to another on a packed train (and “packed train” in Tokyo has an altogether different meaning than in most other countries) when everyone with an iPhone’s pocket broadcast the now familiar “bweep bweep!!” alarm signifying an earthquake in the magnitude 6 or more region.  iPhone’s are very popular here, so the sound was everywhere at once and impossible to ignore.  Like a few thousand bouncing balls being dropped inside the train all at once.

Being on the train, I couldn’t feel that one.  Not to be disappointed, I felt the magnitude 6.1 an hour later, and had already felt the 6.3 at 8:15 that morning, so I got my fill of entertainment.

More pressing is the continuing nuclear mess out east.  Media reports are all over the map, and just as I think I’ve got a handle on the seriousness of the situation another expert comes along to shake my confidence.  I won’t try to summarize the reports as I’m not a scientist and as I haven’t been following them as religiously as before, I’d likely confuse my facts.

Suffice it to say that I’m not much of a uranium-nuclear power supporter anymore.  I never was one, but I can no longer maintain the argument that it’s a necessary evil, as I’ve now read of enough alternatives that can, and could have prevented the need for a uranium/plutonium nuclear reactor in the first place.

Maybe the most surprising of these alternatives is the molten salt reactor (MSR): a nuclear reactor incapable of producing cataclysmic explosions, venting gas, runaway chain-reactions or any of the other nastiness involved with the traditional nuclear reactor.  To summarize the article in the previous link:

  • this technology has been around since the 60’s, and is able to run on thorium which is 400 times more abundant than the uranium required to run current reactors.
  • The reason it never caught on was because it didn’t suit the need of the U.S. military-industrial-complex for fuel that could be turned into bombs, and they would have had to do a lot of re-tooling to change.
  • As a result, MSR became the victim of lock-in, much like the QWERTY keyboard, while less efficient, was locked-in to our computer design.
  • China has recently expressed interest in using MSRs and thorium to power them (different article), and at least some people think that they might be able to break free of the lock-in.

At this point however, I’m starting to wonder what the governments of the world have been thinking.  They had two choices: one safe, cheap(er) and using relatively abundant fuel, the other psychotically dangerous, expensive, and using very rare fuel, and consistently they chose to use enormous amounts of taxpayer money to insure the uninsurable uranium plants and build them near large population centers and directly over fault-lines… because they needed to be able to blow stuff up real good.

Okay, maybe it made sense 50 years ago, but it’s long past the time when we should be addicted to uranium reactors.  If your QWERTY keyboard gave you an electric shock, melted your fingers and hemorrhaged your eyeballs every time you moved your laptop, I’m sure we’d be well on our way to a more efficient design, even if it could be folded up into a compact AK-47.

Just imagine no Three-mile Island, no Chernobyl, no Fukushima.  Why don’t they give MSRs to Iran!?  And no freaking out every time there’s another aftershock.

That’s peace of mind I think we should pay for.  Good luck to China, I say.

The earthquake’s over. Now what?

Freshly back in Tokyo from my brief escape to Osaka, I’ve been disheartened by the way life has so quickly returned to normal.

I know, I know – just a few days ago I was talking about how stressed out and tired I was by the abnormal routine, but after a major life disruption you kind of hope, illogically I suppose, that somehow you’ll return to a life or world changed for the better in some way.  Where’s the balance?  What did we learn?  How can we use this to make progress for the future?

In one of the videos I took after exiting the train station on quake day, I was looking at the thousands of people quietly milling around Shinjuku and surprised myself by saying, “What a chance”.  What a chance for what, though?  What am I expecting myself, or someone else, to do with all these people standing around?  What exactly is it that needs that chance to happen?

Perhaps it was no coincidence that I ended up watching “Zeitgeist: Moving Forward” (free download) on Sunday night.  It’s a feature length documentary talking about the world we live in and what’s wrong with it, how we got this way, and where we’re going.  Unsurprisingly, the picture they paint is pretty dark.  Nevertheless, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in societal change.   No, strike that.  I recommend it to everyone.

In their interviews with experts in the fields of engineering, investigative journalism, moral philosophy, social epidemiology, medicine, biology, neurology, and petroleum geology, to name a few, they illuminate the shameful reality of our grim situation.

The short story: We have been transformed by the oil-and-money addiction of corporations and the greedy few into consumers that are bringing the marvelous diversity of nature, along with our own future, to an ignominious end.

One notable quote from the film, among many, was from John McMurtry of the University of Guelph, Canada:

“Absence of waste, that’s what efficiency is.  This system is more wasteful than all the other existing systems in the history of the planet.  Every level of  life organization and life system is in a state of crisis and challenge and decay or collapse.  No peer reviewed journal in the last 30 years will tell you anything different – and that is that every life system is in decline.  As well as social programs, as well as our water access.  Try to name any means of life that isn’t threatened and endangered.  You can’t.  There isn’t – there really isn’t one and that’s very, very despairing.  But we haven’t even figured out the causal mechanism, we don’t want to face the causal mechanism, we just want to go on.. you know that’s what insanity is when you just keep on doing the same thing over and over again even though it clearly doesn’t work.  So you’re really dealing with not an economic system, but I would go so far as to say an anti-economic system”.

I don’t know about you but that terrifies me.  Far, far more so than the earthquake last week, that scares me to my core.

So what’s wrong?  What’s not wrong might be an easier answer.  Just a few they touch on in the movie:  The insanely unequal distribution of money, the wasteful ubiquity of plastic/oil, scarcity of resources including fresh water, the twisted psychology of market capitalism and how it’s advertising is further twisting our psychology, the use of GDP and other economic measures to gauge the “progress” of our society.

Pay for a car?  Money.  Drive around?  Money.  Crash the car and spend a year in the hospital?  Money.  Clean up the BP oil spill?  Great!  Tack it onto the GDP!  Fix my cheaply built television?  Money.  Treat me for cancer because my sociological status makes me more likely to smoke and drink?  Money!  I can’t believe it, money is everywhere!!!  Maybe I should start breaking stuff JUST TO MAKE MONEY!!

Hold on, they’ve already thought of that – it’s called “planned obsolescence”.  That means they build stuff so that it breaks or can’t be updated past this product generation.  Shouldn’t this be illegal?  We’re living on a planet with finite resources and our corporations are making replacement parts incompatible.  Didn’t we hire politicians to make logical rules about how our resources can be used?  In fact we did, but the corporations, quite simply, can pay more.

Another, more efficient way of breaking stuff for money?  WAR.  That’s right.  Bomb a country and destroy half their buildings and then get super-corporations, think Haliburton and the like, to go in for the courageous “rebuilding effort”.  What a boon!  Why not call it freedom fighting at the same time just to make it sound nicer?  Oh, right – they DID call it freedom fighting at the same time.  Where were those weapons of mass destruction?  Probably hiding in the billions of barrels of oil under Iraq, I suspect.  And what have they done with those billions of barrels of oil?  They’re making more stuff that breaks and becomes obsolete at a faster pace than ever.

So what change is it that we’re looking for?  As McMurtry suggests, maybe it’s a re-evaluation of what is valuable, from the “Money sequence of value”, to the “Life sequence of value”.

Which one sounds more like progress to you?