by Mary Poppins, a long-time environmental activist who can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
The problem first became apparent in 1985. I was sitting on a porch in the mountains in Arizona reading a Scientific American article by one of the early researchers investigating the unlikely possibility that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere might be a problem. Over the previous months there had been a number of similar pieces on things like the ozone layer and the decline in fisheries. Then a ‘eureka!’ (actually, a ‘holy shit’) moment. Clearly there was going to be serious trouble in maybe 20-30 years unless something changed. I tried hard and for a long time to help that change happen, because it sure didn’t look good, even back then.
Skip forward to now. The window of time during which our species could have changed course and averted this has slammed shut. The forces we blindly set in motion are far beyond our ability to control, despite the geoengineering fantasies of the technologists. Ever see The Sorcerers Apprentice?
There are several irreversible processes under way that would each, alone, be sufficient to kill off if not everything at least the upper part of the food chain, which now consists mostly of humans..Two of them are the release of the methane now beginning to boil out of the Arctic ocean and permafrost and ocean acidification.
These are disasters from which the living planet will not recover for perhaps millions of years, and the composition of the recovered biosphere will include few currently extant species. Cockroaches look good to go, primates not so much. But life has made it through these sorts of things before, these great extinctions, and probably would yet again recover and flourish although we will not be around to see it. The third problem is different, new to the world.
We have created astoundingly toxic substances which have not been present on the surface of this planet in billions of years; some have never been here before. All are made in nuclear reactors — they do not occur in nature. The particulars of this problem are well documented and need not be repeated here, except to note that earth’s living beings do not have eons of genetic adaptation to constant high radiation levels. All other problems allow some optimism about the long term prospect for recovery after the human rampage is over. This threat is different in kind from other environmental problems because radioactivity directly disrupts or destroys the ability of genes to accurately replicate. This is not repairable. We menace everything, not just ourselves.
For about seventy years, we’ve been building and operating reactors with design lives of maybe 40 years. There are roughly 450 operating civilian reactors, and a guesstimated 500+ military, research, and other reactors, all of which continue to produce radioisotopes with half-lives ranging from seconds to millions of years in containments designed as temporary until the waste problem is solved. Unfortunately, no solution has been found, and when the containments begin to fail significantly, all the garbage sitting in them will disperse into the environment. There is no other choice- remove this crap from the biosphere, or eat, breathe, and wear it, wash with it, walk on it and drink it when the containment fails.
You’re now looking down the barrel of the gun that is the likeliest of all to kill you, me and everyone we know. It’s not vague any longer. This is the specific problem that will end civilization and ruin the biosphere, with a specific mechanism of action and a very short time frame. Unless, of course, something can be done to secure those SFPs and reactors until a currently unknown technology can be invented capable of removing the spent fuel to another place before the earthquakes and entropy make the effort moot. Is it even possible?
Maybe, but we’re unlikely to ever find out. The first step in solving or mitigating a problem is to acknowledge it, all of it, and humans don’t if they can possibly avoid it.
When I was in my twenties and reading a lot of history, there were a couple of years where I got fascinated by the Holocaust, how that could have been, what people thought they were doing. One aspect in particular struck me; it was in a book whose title is long forgotten, about the response of the Jewish community in Germany to the rise of the Nazis. In a nutshell, denial.
Nobody in the Jewish community, especially the well-off, wanted to believe that the words they were hearing from the Nazis as they rose were serious. Respectable authorities, rabbinical celebrities reassured everyone that Hitler was just posturing, nothing would come of it. As the vise grew tighter, the denial grew more fervent. Those few who defied the consensus and insisted on the reality of the danger were admonished, ridiculed, and finally shunned, in the old-fashioned sense — nobody would have anything to do with them. Reality was just too damn uncomfortable, so they chose to die rather than face it. This is not uncommon; in fact, it is pretty normal behavior. People would often rather die than give up comfortable lives.
That is what we’re doing. For a minimum twenty years it has been clear to anyone who actually look that industrial civilization is a suicide machine based on a false premise; that the Earth offers both endless resources and a bottomless pit for waste. Wrong on both counts, obviously- but admitting that is to acknowledge the destruction we create merely by living in this briefly possible fashion, this remarkably comfortable suicidal fashion.
So you and me, naturally above average in awareness, intelligence, spiritual development, so hip and edgy that we read Nature Bats Last, been worried about this stuff for years, tsk tsk — we gonna give it all up and live on what can be had from the interaction of air, soil, sunlight, water and intelligence?
Do you sometimes drive for pleasure, say, out to eat and a movie? Been known to blast out a few Btu to get the hot tub ready? Get on an airplane? Buy convenient plastic items (gotta have music) that will still be leaking toxins in a millennia or two?
And there’s your answer: No.
Proposed solutions to any of this mess which require humans to behave better than we do are worthless, just another form of denial. Please consider the environment in which the creatures whose descendants we are, evolved. To be successful in evolutionary terms means only one thing, breeding.
The champion breeders (sorry, I can’t resist: did you know one sixth of the human population carries genes from the most successful breeder of all, Genghis Kahn?) in our line of descent were those who were best at acquiring food, water, shelter, and a mate- short term challenges. The critters who were best at short term challenges did well; there were no bonus points awarded for worrying about the ozone layer. As a result, we are hard wired for short term motivation, and long term problems are mostly invisible to our emotional perceptions (and it’s the emotional process that dictates our actions despite these fond illusions of intellectual rigor). We’re going to behave the way we’re wired to behave, with some rare exceptions. The wiring isn’t going to change quickly.
An aside, scientists are wired on the same plane as the rest of us. They are just as addicted to denial and comfort as anyone else, and as unwilling to look at harsh reality. I had a mentor in radiation monitoring for a while, a retired physicist with a background in that area. He was great as long as we were talking about equipment and procedures, but I made the mistake of telling him about Fukushima, and he declared himself too depressed to continue and cut off contact.
Another interesting thing this situation has turned up is the apparent inverse relationship between social rank and ability to grasp the consequences of the situation. Wealthy and powerful people rarely seem to understand that not all problems can be handled with spin, force or money. People who deal with physical reality for a living take a look at this information and quite often get it immediately.
So denial it is and will be, until the situation gets so immediately, undeniably awful that denial will no longer work, at which point everybody starts demanding immediate action; that usually occurs long after there is any effective response possible. We’re most likely there now — the time available to reinforce SFP 4 is melting away as the next earthquake approaches.
Plus there’s another problem that may make doing anything impossible. Tepco is almost out of workers. The experienced workers at all levels have far overstepped the radiation dosages which bar them from further work and must leave. There is no one to replace them, and it is getting extremely difficult to find anyone willing to go out there for any amount of money, as the ambient radiation hits higher and higher levels and continues to rise. Reactors 2 and 3 cannot even be approached anymore, and there appears to be an ongoing release of yellow, radioactive steam cracks in the ground. It seems likely that the plant will be abandoned soon, not by policy, but because anyone going there will die.
What to do?
In all likelihood, Fukushima is going to blow and the chain of dominos will fall; if some miracle occurs this time it won’t matter for long, because all commercial reactors are being run by for-profit companies under a de facto policy of “run to failure” — that’s how you maximize profits. And then there are those other lethal problems if we get past this one.
Why do anything?
The ethics of extinction
My ethics are personal and therefore subjective, as I think is ultimately true for everyone. So since I’m going to talk about ethics, I need to tell you a little about mine to keep things up front. My effort in life is to grow in kindness and integrity, which to me look like necessary components of each other. I don’t have a religion or gurus, but let me tell you about a story in the Los Angeles Times some years ago, when the newspaper were doing a series on the poorest of the poor.
The story was about a couple living in a hut with their child in a barren wasteland in Africa. Poor doesn’t begin to convey their situation. None of them had shoes or more than a rag or two. Every day the man went scrounging in this desolate, empty place for some way to get enough calories for another day of life. Because repeated failure would doom them all, he always had to eat first even when if child went hungry. The woman made her efforts closer to home. One day a near miracle occurred; out scavenging, she found five potatoes, which could be traded for nearly a week’s worth of millet, a huge windfall.
Walking home, she encountered a mother with a baby who hadn’t eaten in two days and whose milk had failed, who asked her for help. She thought about it for a moment, and then she gave the mother three of the five potatoes.
I think that this woman is a very advanced soul, and if I can make some progress towards her ethics then this life will have been a success.
To my subjective perception, service is the expression of kindness, and it seems incumbent upon me to try and do whatever I can to make things better for the beings around me.
So here are some personal, subjective reasons to keep trying, even in the face of human extinction:
We have just seen a sudden mass movement intentionally triggered by a small group — Occupy Wall Street — significantly change the political debate in this country overnight. It may be possible to do something similar regarding Fukushima. It won’t solve the problem, but it could be part, even an important part, of a larger effort which mitigates things a bit.
That’s about as much hope as the visible landscape will bear. It isn’t much, and granted, the likeliest outcome by far is the worst one.
If there was nothing at stake except our sorry selves, then maybe sinking back into the familiar numbness of inertia would be defensible. But that isn’t the case. There are uncountable numbers of living beings, some of them human and very small, who will suffer and die horribly and slowly when Fukushima blows. Almost all of them are innocent, and powerless to prevent this.
You and I are neither powerless nor innocent. We didn’t stop gobbling the world even when we knew that others will be paying for our little party with their futures, including our own children. We have failed as guardians of their future.
Our unbridled selfishness has ruined the ever-changing web of living interaction known as the biosphere. This has been called biocide, and if the worst happens with the worlds radioactive waste, that may become literally true. Our debt is very large indeed, and it is owed to our own victims. It is just possible that an enormous effort may help somewhat.
What kind of person am I if I will not try?
Many of us have treasured deep connections to certain places (the deserts and mountains of Arizona, in my case) and done our best to keep them alive and vibrant, to leave hawk and juniper, and ponderosa, elk and wolf room to thrive, to push back against the death culture with every tool available. We failed, and for those who know what is now gone the loss is hard to bear.
Consider love of life as a reason to keep working, love for what was and the astounding grace of having known the beauty and intelligence of a flourishing living ecosystem before the chance was gone, and love manifested as a willingness to make it possible again. I will keep trying in gratitude, and in hope that possibly the recovery can be expedited in some small way by something I do.
That’s reason enough.
Who will you chose to be now, in this painful, nightmare time? This is an existential crisis in the most literal sense. The future existence of our species, and likely everything above the cockroach level is seriously in question, and our individual lives and the lives of our children are immediately at risk from Fukushima. One quake, one lengthy glitch in the water flow to any spent fuel pool, and immense suffering ensues instantly.
The situation may still seem abstract and unreal on an emotional level because humans cannot perceive radiation directly, and usually only personal perception of danger registers. But this will change over time as the cover-up cracks, or immediately if a pool burns. At some point the denial will break, followed by much disorder as people try to make themselves and their loved ones safe when it is impossible to be safe.
In disasters people can both show great kindness and commit terrible crimes, but mostly there is fear and running, hiding and shocking, paralyzing confusion. Responding to this situation requires courage, not least the courage to look directly at the horror we are facing and still not be broken, to refuse to stay safely passive as our species kills itself and everything else.
I think that for myself, integrity requires I keep trying until I no longer have the ability.
I adore little kids. A yard full of happy pre-schoolers is about as much fun as I know how to have. I am reading about what is happening to kids in Japan, and it breaks my heart and make me very sad and very angry- children dying of cardiac arrest in fifth grade, children forced to consume huge amounts of radiation to protect the reputation of Fukushima produce, refusal to test children for internal radiation. It goes on and on it is sickening and horrifying and as a human being I will not stand idly by while this happens there and spreads around the world, regardless of any other reason to try.
Fuck the murderous corporate scumbags doing this. I will fight them to my last breath. It is too late for Japan, but it may not be so everywhere. WE MUST NOT PASSIVELY LET THEM POISON MORE CHILDREN. And to those displaying a sophisticated, cynical superiority such that even this doesn’t signify a moral imperative to act: consider living with yourself when they start dying here. Is this who you chose to be? Is this really who you chose to see in the mirror every morning?
How much cowardice is currently showing?
Because this is really what it comes down to, isn’t it- taking full responsibility for who we are and what we do, and making and living that hard decision to always do the right thing. I am a fighter by nature and by path, and for me this is the essence of life for an honorable warrior. It’s only secondarily about fighting, although defending those who need it is certainly a necessity. The true essence is always doing the right thing regardless of personal consequences. Fear, and overcoming it, is just part of the work. There are many depending on us to do this, for they cannot help themselves and without our help they will die in great misery. For your sake as well as theirs, I hope you will undertake to become courageous and help them.
So there it is, one person’s reasons for trying regardless of whether or not it makes any difference, of whether or not the universe offers meaning beyond that which we construct, whether or not anyone else does anything. I will never stop trying to make things better, so long as I am able to choose. And sometimes there is a success.
It is enough.
SOMETHING, HOWEVER SMALL AND IMPERFECT, IS BETTER THAN NOTHING
But the form of the effort may change. No matter what we do, it may not be possible to avert biocide and our own extinction.
There is a Zen monastery near Fukushima, currently a place of immense suffering. The citizens there have effectively been condemned to death by their government because admitting the truth and evacuating them would cause an intolerable loss of face. They are watching their children sicken and die, while the medical profession refuses to test for radiation and diagnoses the problems as “flu” and “stress” and “hysteria.” The area will not be habitable again for thousands of years; it is truly a lost cause helping them.
One of the insane things that is happening there is a truly bizarre and useless effort to decontaminate areas by digging up contaminated soil. The citizens have been told this will work and of course it doesn’t, but they are conditioned to believe what authority tells them and to obey. So this process generated many tons of highly contaminated soil in plastic bags, with no place to put it, and there were many anxious homeowners thinking that if only they could put this stuff someplace, their children would be helped. Where to put it?
The Abbott of the temple opened the gates and invited anyone who needed a place to dump, to bring the bags to the temple.
That is what to do: just give kindness. It’s the only thing you can always offer.
That’s enough words for now. There are a few of us involved in a project to get the word out, and there are plans to set up radiation monitoring networks and a non-government controlled radiation measurement lab so people can see what their kids are eating, and more. If someone is interested in that, or if you’ve got a better idea contact me, or maybe we can have a discussion in the comments? I’ve never done this before and I don’t know how it works.
I hope someone finds this essay useful.
Kindness to all beings, as best I am capable of doing it. And best wishes to you.
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McPherson’s latest essay for Transition Voice appeared today. You can read it here<>.