Making small waves


On the TV screen the images look at once familiar and bizarre.  Wide swaths of trash–the wreckage of appliances, houses, cars, furniture–swept along as if by an off-camera bulldozer doing an ordinary day’s work at a landfill without end.  There’s a soothing feel to the lava flow rhythm of the trash, as if the monstrous mass has a mind of its own and is in no hurry to get to wherever it’s going.  Even the largest TV shrinks the terrible offscreen facts into frames resembling the paintings of abstract expressionists.  We gaze at the pictures on our small instruments, curious and amazed at being so quickly in the know, with our sense that knowledge is power retreating from us with the flow.  So compelling is the moving mass that the smoldering nuclear plant in the distance is like white noise, out of sight and out of mind.

We stand transfixed, children of communication instruments also being swept away into a vast landfill that once was a landscape of city and countryside.  We’re not sure what to feel.  What we see is so compelling we can’t turn away, but our technologies shrink and distance the destruction so far from us it’s hard to feel it’s real.  We turn away to our daily routines to keep our imaginations in check, and our hearts from melting down.

Our hearts and minds are equally stunned if we pause long enough to imagine that the victims have actual names, friends, cousins, lovers.  It’s hard to believe in suffering so unimaginable, and suddenly it’s harder to believe what we believe.  If God caused this devastation or simply allowed it to occur, then God is a nightmare character in an absurd world.  If we believe that the destruction is the work of Nature rather than God, it’s hard to picture a decent role for Mother Earth on a planet imagined as green.  We sink into the dazed existential incomprehension resembling despair.  Who can gain true solace from the fact that we didn’t, by chance and accident of birth, happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time?  Does being alive and safe make us happy?

We need a good story to console and give us good reason to go on.  We retell ourselves the usual one:  This is all part of God’s plot.  The victims are minor characters in a moral drama with a rapture happy ending for those who can force themselves into believing the myth.  Or.  Mother Nature–like the lovely women we see at the outdoor market selling veggies–has gone berserk because her children are making a mess of her home.  She’ll show us a thing or two, including the brutal power of her underside.  If we behave better in the coming years, maybe she’ll look like meadows and exude the fragrance of spring flowers again.

But I’m innocent, we say.  I didn’t create the huge geological formations that cause tsunamis.  Blame God or Mother Nature for that.  I’m just another ant lucky enough not to be swept away.  I’m next to nothing, really, so what do you expect from me?

I’m also clever enough to look askance at the fire and smoke coming from the nuclear energy plant.  Plant?  Like a green thing that grows naturally from the soil?  Or is it a human construct, blended from crude concrete, steel and subtle alchemies?

I convince myself I’m not responsible for tidal waves, so I point my finger at God or Mother Earth.  Then I turn on the lights, and the furnace, microwave, refrigerator, and TV, and someday in my greenest hope I’ll own an electric car.  Why not two?  What do smoldering nuclear reactors in Japan have to do with me?  I’m a nobody, working hard to be somebody who someday has two clean electric cars.

The fallout:

The Minnesota House is trying to pass a bill reversing the ban on building nuclear power plants in the state.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPKO) wants to build two new nuclear reactors on the south Texas shore of the Gulf of Mexico.  The Obama administration has asked for a $4 billion loan guarantee for the project, and for $56 billion to be spent on nuclear reactors in other states.

According to Greg Palast, who has been a lead investigator of nuclear plant fraud and racketeering for the U.S. government, Stone and Webster, a company which falsified its “SQ” or “Seismic Qualification” certification for the Shoreham nuclear facility in New York by changing the test scores from “failed” to “passed,” is scheduled to work with TEPKO to build the new Gulf of Mexico plant.  What Stone and Webster did is called lying.

Nobody can agree about what to do with spent nuclear waste.  In Minnesota spent nuclear waste rods are stacked somewhere near the nuclear plant in Red Wing.

Nobody seems to want them, especially in Nevada.

Children living in the area of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that occurred in 1986 have a ten times greater incidence of thyroid cancer than children elsewhere.  Everybody knows why.  The spreadsheets don’t have enough room to count the health related costs, and some fear that doing so might lead to a tax increase.

Nuclear power plants seem to be vulnerable and likely targets for terrorist attacks.  Can such attacks be prevented?  At what cost? 

And in case you haven’t heard:  On March 12, 2011, German citizens demanding a moratorium on new nuclear plant construction formed a human chain that stretched for 27 miles.

Some of them no doubt have an important story to tell, one that gives everyone a small part to play in an ongoing narrative.  It begins with the players being shaken awake by an earthquake in a faraway land.  Individuals are suddenly in the dark but not afraid of the powers of darkness they need to confront, and they know they need to do something to save themselves.  The action scenes are boring, wordy and long.  There are thousands of heroes and heroines in this narrative, not just one or a few, and they do not trust technologies that destroy or create.  They are always unsure of themselves, small candles walking carefully in the dark, driven to go on not by what they can do but what they ought to do in the small houses, towns, and neighborhoods where they actually live.  They turn off the lamp in an empty room, knowing they can’t throw the switches that dim lights in Nevada and Hollywood.  They walk a lot and spread the word.  In the face of the huge problems they have to confront, they hope not to win or succeed, but to carry on.  This carrying on is their happy ending.