Posts Tagged ‘Japan Earthquake’

(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.


Life goes on in Japan

I watched another video of the carnage left by the tsunami yesterday.  My girlfriend said the video hasn’t been on the news yet because the damage is too severe.

The video was taken by a few people from the town of Onagawa driving around town naming things that used to be in this or that place.  That’s where the city hall was.  That’s where the hospital used to be, this was a train station.  The narrator gets lost because there’s nothing recognizable around.

They drive more and what’s most noticeable, besides chaos everywhere, is just how flat everything now is.  They spot a train lying on it’s side in the distance, nowhere near any tracks.  As they finally start climbing a hill you think they’ve reached the safe zone, and then you see cars on their sides, more debris.  The tsunami reached a height of at least 20 meters here.  Twenty meters!  Rescue personnel said they found over 1000 bodies in town.  The tsunami in Minamisanriku was worse, by the looks of it.

I’m sure you’ve seen similarly shocking videos by now, and there are many of them, but I’m still surprised by the scale of it.  One of the women in another video expressed it well, screaming, “Is this not a dream?”, while 20 or 30 large boats and even ships floated into and then back out of her town.  I couldn’t find the video again later.

I think that I’ve never really been confronted with the severity of a natural disaster before.  I’ve seen them on t.v., and because they’re so far away or I don’t know anyone there, the scale of human suffering involved has usually escaped me.  The death toll here will probably be well over 20 000.  In contrast, the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 killed over 230 000 people.  It boggles the mind to imagine how that many people can be killed all at once.

But, life goes on.

Things are not at all bad here.  Tokyo is 90% normal.  Bottled water isn’t easy to get, but if you’re on a mission for it, you can find it at the supermarket in the morning.   We keep having aftershocks but nothing serious.  M4, maybe M4.5 once every 2 or 3 days.  They are much less frequent than before.  The nuclear situation hasn’t affected the availability of foodstuffs that I’ve really noticed.  Some things run out quickly, but you can do without, or change to a different meal.  Trains aren’t fully regular.  For example the Toyoko line only runs local trains, but the leave every 5 minutes.  Basically things are getting along pretty well.  I don’t think there’s anything to be afraid of, unless there’s a leak seeping directly into Tokyo groundwater sources, which I think is unlikely.

I’ve just celebrated the first weekend of “Hanami”, the celebration of blooming cherry blossoms.  My grumpy old neighbour told me I can’t celebrate Hanami because of the earthquake, at which point I took great pleasure telling her that the park was full.  This coming weekend should be better!

This is maybe the best time of year in Japan.  Many people come to Japan during Golden Week (end of May-1st week of April), during the summer or Christmas Holidays, but there’s nothing like feeling spring in the air, grabbing some drinks and a barbecue, and going to hang-out with friends in the park with all the trees blooming light pink.  Just a week later, all the petals will be falling off in the wind, creating a week-long dream of raining petals.  It really is beautiful.

After Hanami, we’re in for a few weeks of excellent street festivals scattered around Tokyo.  Hopefully I can go to more than a few.  Here’s hoping they’re not canceled!

Went to the park this morning to take pictures of the cherry trees.  It’s a completely amazing day out.  Have a look!

Water: A picture is worth a thousand words

The recent detection of minuscule levels of radiation in Tokyo water has caused all sorts of insanity here.

A run on bottled water, which, by the way, is usually not subject to even half the tests for chemicals and pollutants that normal tap water is subjected to, has transformed the population into a selfish group of water fiends.  If this is how the Japanese behave with safe levels of radiation in the water, I don’t want to see what could happen in other parts of the world.

I must admit the paranoia is contagious; even though I’m fully aware the levels are safe, I still have a mild urge to buy bottled water.  I haven’t had the chance yet to see what I’ll do if confronted with that situation, as I haven’t seen any bottled water anywhere for at least 3 days now… which causes the paranoia.  The vicious circle begins!

All the talk of water reminded me of a picture I found on Michael Tomasky’s blog at the Guardian a while ago.  He’d come across a picture comparing the relative sizes of the Earth, all the water on Earth, and all the fresh water on Earth.  Frustratingly, I couldn’t find the picture on his blog, but I did find it here.  Brace yourself, you WILL be surprised.

As the author (Marianne) notes below the photo: “Of that small dot of fresh water—which constitutes about 2% of the world’s surface water—75% of it is frozen in ice sheets and glaciers (many of which are melting into salt water).”

So cut that tiny sphere into 4 and what we actually have access to is just one of those parts.  Sorry – you’re math is probably better than mine, I just had to say it.  In fact, I was tempted to Photoshop and shrink that last dot down to 25% just to see what it would look like, but I think the point is clear enough.

Besides the stunning tininess of that speck of fresh water, what amazes me most of all is the fact that we’ve managed to harness it and distribute it widely within so many countries.  A very close number two is the fact that we’ve allowed so many people to dump garbage, toxic sludge, oil and pretty much everything and anything really, into it.

Perhaps the most current example of this is the horrifying case between Chevron and the people of Equador.  While it’s heartening to know that on February 14th, 2011 the courts found Chevron guilty, I cannot believe the degree of moral corruption that could have allowed so many people working at Chevron in Equador to let it happen.  If you didn’t read it already somewhere else, I want to make sure you understand that Chevron knew they were doing this.  It was no accident.  They ORDERED it done to save millions, perhaps billions of dollars.

And they’re appealing it!

Seriously, where do these people come from?  What do they drink when they’re thirsty?  I just imagine some workers dumping sludge into the Amazon on a hot day, they reach for a bottle of water to quench their thirst and… Can’t they connect the dots?  Are they even human?  Do they have a brain?

Thinking back to Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, the documentary I watched on the weekend, it seems that the problem is not lack of a brain, but rather a lack of empathy.  Just like the Wall Steet traders.  Just like the Corporate CEO’s.  If you don’t want to watch the movie, just Google “psychopath ceo” to see what I’m talking about.

The pattern that emerges is familiar to all of us even if we haven’t read the headlines.  The greed for money compromises people’s ability to make rational decisions beyond their individual self-interest; and in a society where the individual is king and money his power, we had best watch the wealthy much more closely.

So yes, it’s another terrible thing happening in our world, no big surprise.  And yet there’s cause for some hope:  The courts fined Chevron $9 billion which should make others of their ilk take notice.  And on the other hand, showing that all business people aren’t evil, a Canadian company has been making waves by inventing a cheaper, and more importantly a less energy-intensive way to desalinate water.  They’re called Saltworks.

Check’em out!

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?

Excuse me, there’s a microsievert in my soup.

Heading back to Tokyo on the bus today, I’m most disturbed by the news that there is radiation in the water. No kidding.

Sure, the levels aren’t enough to kill a fly in a year, but the fact is significant because just yesterday there was no radiation in the water – at least none that I know of.

And that’s how we’re going with everything these days. From water to air to earth we’re incrementally poisoning ourselves, and everything else, with pollution of some kind. Not a day seems to go by where yet another toxin or “dangerous levels of fill-in-the-blank are detected” in someone’s critical resource. The planet is finite and the headlines are gorging on lakes and peninsulas.

As biological entities, our most important requirement is food. Without it, we simply can’t continue our lives in a normal way.

One of the things that differentiates us from 3rd world countries is our bountiful selection of fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and all the other foods we take for granted. If that disappears, I’m sure we will quickly notice the difference.

This may not be an imminent crisis, but with the world’s population forecast to grow to 9 billion by 2050 it’s certainly looming large on our collective horizon. We can’t continue to destroy our land and water with pollutants, many of which are symptoms of rampant factory farming and industrial agriculture. As things stand now, we are in big trouble.

With that in mind, how many creative solutions to our food dilemma do you see being embraced by our leaders? Most, if not all of the people with real political power appear to be doing little more than shifting around the small print in the status quo laws that were becoming obsolete in 1995. The people with the “other kind” of power appear to be bank-rolling and lobbying that apathy and the active destruction of even those paltry laws. Their preference is for processed and packaged foods, all of which require factories, more energy, more chemicals, more transportation, and all the other markers of corporate residence.

Yet there is an entire culture of people in each of our countries crying out for real changes to be made that can help their communities to become sustainable and healthy – places you want to live and work in because they’re fresh and innovative and actually doing something that makes our world work better.

So I want to talk about a real solution. Some people have called it a pipe-dream, and it’s realistic to say that it’s technically difficult and will be challenging, but we’ve managed to harness the atom at 442 reactors worldwide to power the lives of countless people. I think we’re up to it.

Vertical farming was recently introduced by Columbia University Professor Dr. Dickson Despommier. He proposes building high-tech urban 50-story buildings, for example, intelligently designed to take advantage of solar and wind power options, loaded with hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponic apparatus to take back control of our food systems.

His vision for these buildings includes water recovery and local waste-water treatment, power generation from biological waste, and integration into local community needs. There are many other advantages to the vertical farm that he mentions in his book, but my eyes are starting to cross looking at my iPhone and my stubby fingers have had enough. One important part of the concept: quite a few good-paying jobs.

Despommier estimates that a 50-story building occupying 1 city block could feed 50,000 people, and a quick calculation shows that if we were to build them, 442 vertical farms could feed 22,100,000 people.
How many vertical farms could you build for the cost of one nuclear reactor?

Currently, huge swaths of our countries that used to be invaluable peak-ecosystem hardwood forest are now being plowed, over-fertilized and factory farmed year after year. The toll on soil and water systems is debilitating, and getting worse.

So what are we going to do? Continue to grow the same old way, eating our way through hectares like Doritos at a fraternity party? Or are we going to, as Despommier suggests in his subtitle, grow up?

March 17th in Tokyo

I’m currently on a bus heading West to Osaka, 11:00am.
With all the conflicting international news reports, everpresent possibility of another quake, and not least my stress levels, I’ve decided it’s best to get out for a while and, as one of my good friends said, “decompress”.
I wish I had some spare blankets, gas, water or cash to send to those North-East, but I don’t. If you do, please consider it. I just read that even though they had survived the quake and tsunami, some people died last night from cold, lack of food or water… I don’t know. Sad.
I’ve also read a lot of comments here and there, especially from a compilation of translated Twitter posts that a Facebook user ( has put up, about kindness to strangers, orderly conduct and general warm cooperation in Tokyo and surrounding areas.
I must say that I’m not at all surprised.
One of my favourite things about Japanese society is their ability to behave well in large groups. I suppose it may look boring to see a concert in Tokyo where everyone is just standing and waving their arms as opposed to jumping around in a mosh-pit or whatever. But what that translates to is peace on the streets when, for example, 200,000 people are walking home from fireworks, respect for other people’s space and, now, millions of people not shoving, not looting, not panicking, making way for others, not honking their horns, being polite!!, being approachable!!, offering free food and drinks to cold pedestrians and everyone asking if everyone else is okay.
Japan rocks!
There is a maturity in this society that is sometimes sorely lacking in the West. This extends to media and politics, arguably of course. And though us Westerners might (justifiably?) agonize over less than inspiring levels of creativity/imagination, political involvement, and independent action, what they have is still a remarkable feat. And enviable.
From all the discussion of the differences that exist between East and West because of “group” versus “independent” behaviour, there emerges an independent dignity and power from behaving in this “group” way that I am not sure can happen in reverse. When I come back to Canada, I hope I can bring some of this with me.
Either way, I’m on a bus fleeing the probibilities and can’t be consumed by media or bothered with significant thoughts of the future, Mt. Fuji majestically piercing the clouds just behind me, like a guardian between here and there, and have clearly entered a sombre phase of whatever kind of “recovery” I’m in.
LOL… And going to a DJ party tonight in Osaka!

March 16th in Tokyo

Information keeps coming in from all over.  The quickly changing situation is not helping anyone’s stress-levels here, but we’re mostly managing just fine… so far.

Last night’s earthquake near Mt. Fuji shook Tokyo enough to make my girlfriend and I grab our emergency backpacks and go outside.  We felt a little absurd standing outside after it died down – her in her pajamas and me in still wearing my slippers – but better safe than sorry.

Another quake today gave us all the jitters again, reminding us that this is not over.  It really is exhausting sitting around waiting.  Planning to go for a walk and watch a movie at home tonight, hopefully giving our worried brains a rest.

I’ve had a few more friends leave Japan, or buy tickets to leave tomorrow.  Some others have fled west.  We’re thinking of leaving Tokyo for Kobe tomorrow night, or sooner if we can, by bus.  A quick check for a return flight from Japan to Canada revealed the price had tripled to around U.S. $6500.00.  One way was available for a decent price, then not, then expedia gave me an error.  It seems that the airlines may be doing their best to make a killing off the chaos.  $2500.00 for a one-way flight, economy class, on Thursday?  Gimme a break.  Why don’t they just sell them all and be done with it?

Just getting to the airport may be difficult.  At least one of the usual 2 airport trains, the Narita Express, is not running.  However, I could be wrong.

To be honest I feel that the situation will, err, blow over (sorry), and am doing my best not to overreact.  But just when I think things are getting back to normal, we have another aftershock or they give us news about white smoke, explosions, or radioactive steam.  I didn’t even know there were more than 4 reactors until the 5th one developed some problem this morning.

People have continued to buy food and other resources madly, leaving convenience-store and supermarket shelves empty.  I’m assuming that if I go early enough I might be able to find things I need, but the Japanese house-wife is a formidable shopping machine so I also have my doubts.

Anyway that’s all for today, I have to take a breather and chill out.