All six nuclear reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have entered into various states of malfunction, with at least one spewing radioactive material into the atmosphere, since the island nation was ravaged by an 8.9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami earlier this month.
6:34pm | When I phoned my friend (We'll call him Kiba) last week to see about making a social call sometime after 10 p.m., he said the timing should be perfect considering that beginning at 7 p.m. he was hosting an informal get-together of friends fretting about the events occurring in Japan and what implications (direct and indirect) these might have for us on this side of the Pacific.
But when I walked in the door at 10:30 everyone was still there, filling Kiba's living room with nervous presence and ongoing discussion. I'm not sure exactly what transpired during the three-and-a-half hours prior, but I heard talk of iodine and bomb shelters, of forming committees and rounding up supplies, of contingency plans to travel east.
They weren't talking just about the current Asian goings-on, but also hashing out "what ifs" regarding something similar happening here. Which it could.
For Americans, one of the scariest things about tracking the situation in Japan is that this is not the run-of-the-mill natural disaster, the kind that happens in a Third World-y sort of place lacking retrofitting and solid infrastructure, a place without state-of-the-art technology and a government in the know about how to address events of this magnitude, a place without nuclear reactors.
No, in many respects Japan is mirror of the United States, one of a handful of countries that we can rightly view as comparable with regard to such disaster. We have a sense that right now we are bearing witness to an event from our own possible future.
And it's pretty frigging scary.
Standing there that night, it struck me how right on Kiba was to organize such a gathering. Doing that would never would have occurred to me, being that (for whatever reason) I've lived my entire life under a pessimistic penumbra, not exactly being fatalistic but feeling quite sure that everything could go to hell at any time — and that there's little I can do about it. I watch BBC World's coverage with awe but not genuine surprise.
But not everyone exists in such a dark mental space, and my more optimistic brothers and sisters are truly shocked when terrible things happen, not because they didn't comprehend such possibility, but because that's not where their proverbial hearts reside.
This shock is motivating many people to turn toward the most dramatic element of the current goings-on: the situation with the Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant. The reaction ranges from fears of radiation sickness to rallying cries against nuclear energy in this country.
The irony here is that, in terms of our own health and quality of life, nuclear power may be merely the biggest windmill at which we can tilt. Lord knows I'm expert on neither nuclear power nor the environment, but I feel pretty confident that if you were able to crunch all the quantifiables, you'd find much more to fear — in terms of both the possible and the actual — when it comes to meeting our gargantuan urban power demands by more traditional means. This is why the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-partisan nonprofit combining the best in environmental concern and scientific expertise, regards nuclear power as a less-than-ideal but nonetheless viable present-tense option for powering our First World lifestyle while minimizing (relatively speaking) environmental impact.
In terms of your day-to-day existence, it is almost certainly the case that the average Long Beach resident is in much more peril from poor eating habits, stress and texting while driving than anything emanating from Fukushima or from anything that will ever emanate from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
It's not that I'm a lobbyist for nuclear power; it's that right now a lot of us are channeling energy into things that have little to do with actually making our lives better. If we want to secure or improve our well-being, there's a long list of candidates for study that existed on our shores well before anything terrible began to transpire 5,000 miles away.
That's not to say we shouldn't push to reduce our power demands and employ the safest and least-damaging possible means to meet them. Nor is it to say that there isn't much to be considered regarding the Japan quake and its wake. Besides, how could we not think about it?
But I imagine a lot of the energy flow right now has to do with feeling powerless — fitting, because to some degree we really are. And when we feel powerless, it's a lot easier to focus on overwhelming, intangible specters like radiation dispersal half a world away — about which most of us understand very, very little — than on the small but concrete actions we can take right here at home to improve our individual and communal lives in the tiniest of ways. Reducing your salt intake or turning off your computer at night rather than letting it stay in sleep mode may not scratch the same itch as does scanning the web for the latest harbinger of doom from the Far East, but it's probably more valuable to improving the world you inhabit in the here and now, particularly as that here and now moves into the future.
Perhaps there's an extra salience to the deaths of Mark Bixby, Tom Dean and Jeff Berger happening to coincide with the still-unfolding tragedy in Japan, because it highlights the fact that our powerlessness extends well into everyday events (such as airplane flight). We can prepare for the worst, but at some point we are simply left living our lives and hoping for the best. And sometimes our hopes will be gravely disappointed.
Even so, we ought not to let our obsessions with far-flung possible eventualities cause us to miss out on living pragmatically; and we should not distract ourselves by looking for some big, capital-letter symbol (like Nuclear Power) to shoulder the bulk of the blame.
Kiba's idea was to create a forum for people to come together and share their concerns, along with strategies for allaying those concerns, such as disseminating accurate information in lieu of rumor.
“This is just the beginning of an ongoing conversation," Kiba said. "What’s really important is for the people in this community to continue supporting each other with information and resources.”
Emotional reactions are unavoidable, and of course we should give vent to them. But we are probably best off if we don't let such reactions dictate our life strategies.