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Five lessons from a month in hell

Leave it to the bombing campaign in Libya to remind us that the ongoing horror in Japan isn't the only thing to lose sleep over. Japan and the North Africa/Middle East region are each about five thousand miles away from us here in the US, in opposite directions, but we've got one eye glued on each these days. And with damned good reason.

On the surface, the nuclear crisis in Japan and the political crisis in Libya (along with at least five other countries in the region) might seem unrelated. But when it comes to our self interest here in the United States, there's one thing that binds them together: our unquenchable need for energy and the price we pay for that addiction. And there are a few lessons I think would behoove us to learn from this month in hell:

1. Mother Nature and human nature can't be contained.

We've done such a remarkable job at reshaping the physical world to suit our wants and needs that it takes disasters like that in Japan to literally jolt us out of our complacent belief that we are masters of our domain. As PCI Fellow, Bill McKibben states:

What the events reveal is the thinness of the margin on which modernity lives. There's not a country in the world more modern and civilised than Japan; its building codes and engineering prowess kept its great buildings from collapsing when the much milder quake in Haiti last year flattened everything. But clearly it's not enough. That thin edge on which we live, and which at most moments we barely notice, provided nowhere near enough buffer against the power of the natural world.

This is not just true for disasters that are merely nature's whims. When we pump gigatons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere or split an atom in an effort to generate "clean" energy, we play with nature's balance. Our power in this regard is remarkable. But, as we're discovering, it's much easier to break something than put it back together again.

And mother nature is not the only nature at work. Across the Arab world, the populace is rising up to demand some say in their own lives. It may well be that hunger pangs drove people into the streets this year—after decades of high unemployment, government corruption, and profound wealth inequality—but what's helped fan the flames of uprising across borders is something to which we all can relate: a hunger for self determination. Once that hunger is fed, it's hard to contain.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is when that tart taste of hypocrisy should be noticeable on our tongues. Because while we proclaim—and I think, for the most part, genuinely feel—a calling to spread democracy around the world, that's pretty much the last thing our oil-fueled economies need right now. As geopolitical security expert Michael Klare recently wrote:

To put the matter baldly: The world economy requires an increasing supply of affordable petroleum. The Middle East alone can provide that supply. That’s why Western governments have long supported “stable” authoritarian regimes throughout the region, regularly supplying and training their security forces. Now, this stultifying, petrified order, whose greatest success was producing oil for the world economy, is disintegrating. Don’t count on any new order (or disorder) to deliver enough cheap oil to preserve the Petroleum Age.

Sure, label me a cynic, but how many of you really believe that the bombing campaign we're waging in Libya right now (launched on the 8th anniversary of the bombing of Baghdad, no less) has nothing to do with the 1.3 million barrels/day of oil Libya produces? If we cared so much about human rights, what are we doing about government violence in Yemen or Bahrain, where Saudi Arabian forces have been called in to squelch protests? The House of Saud fears protests spreading to Saudi Arabia and, frankly, so should we. Because if Saudi Arabia's oil production goes offline, or is even diminished, all bets are off for economic recovery here at home.

2. We must prepare for business unusual.

Is it just me or have the last three years felt like a breathless series of one crisis after the other? A global economic cliff drop... massive earthquakes in Haiti, New Zealand, and Japan... record floods, droughts, and fires in Asia, Russia, Australia, and the US... oil price spikes in 2008 and again in 2011... government debt crises in Greece and Ireland... the worst oil spill in US history... record high food prices... political regimes overthrown or threatened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain...

For the most part, the public conversation has focused—with increasing desperation—on “getting back to normal”: robust economic growth, profligate energy use, unbridled consumerism, etc. But what if all this is the new normal?

3. Resilience is not just a quaint concept. As someone working for an organization that promotes resilience, I've been pleased to see a real growth in the use of the term resilience—to describe everything from the wives of former Presidential candidates to sports teams. But resilience is not just a quaint concept; its real world application (or lack thereof) can have a profound impact.

Case in point: The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant to which the world's eyes are currently glued. The plant consists of six nuclear reactors in close proximity to the Pacific ocean and one another, in a region prone to earthquakes.

Core components of resilient systems are redundancy and distribution. Particularly in the realm of energy production, distributed systems are often viewed as inefficient and therefore unwise. But how wise was it to place six nuclear reactors close together? Four of the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors are in one state of emergency or the other.

I'm sure the designers were convinced that they had created redundant electricity systems, when maintaining electricity to cool the reactors is high on the list of safety requirements. Not only did they have backup diesel generators but they also had emergency batteries. Perhaps they thought this was enough. It wasn't. The earthquake knocked out the electricity; the tsunami flooded the emergency generators. Wholly unexpected right? A real Black Swan? But Tokyo Electric Power, operators of the Fukushima plant, had numerous warnings, including a report by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1990, which "identified earthquake-induced diesel generator failure and power outage leading to failure of cooling systems as one of the most likely causes of nuclear accidents from an external event."

And if you think this lack of proper safety protocols is limited to these reactors, or even the whole of Japan, think again. In the US, here are just a few examples of resilience in (in)action:

  • The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which lies less than a mile from a fault line, isn't required to include earthquakes in its emergency plans.
  • The Palisades nuclear power plant in Michigan has been storing nuclear waste in outdoor concrete bunkers 100 yards away from the shores of Lake Michigan (source of water for 40 million Americans) since 1993, against safety regulations.
  • In 2006 inspectors discovered that the emergency generators at the Fermi 2 plant in Michigan (same design as Fukushima Daiichi unit 1) had been inoperable for 20 YEARS.

4. It’s a small world after all.

An obvious point perhaps, but worth repeating: localized events can have global implications. Radiation from the east coast of Japan has already reached the west coast of the US and will eventually make its way around the globe. There are concerns about contamination of food and water, ocean fish stocks, and more. Global trade and travel, not to mention natural forces like the gulf stream, make it virtually impossible to contain—or even track—the effects. We're talking about trace elements of Cesium-137 here. But consider for a moment the much broader impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, not only spatially but temporally. As I've said before: The road trips my grandmother used to take to Vegas in the 1950s are now raising sea levels in Bangladesh while the coal being burned in China today is going to make my grand kids’ August weather very different than my own.

And what is true for Earth's atmosphere is also true for the political atmosphere around the world. With world oil production on a plateau for several years now, and demand growth in places like China, protests in Egypt and Libya can send gas prices at your local gas station soaring.

5. An addiction is an addiction is an addiction.

Which gets me to the biggest lesson of all, in my mind. If nothing else, this hellish month should remind us that there's no such thing as "free" or "cheap" or "clean" or "safe" energy.

The debate over the safety of nuclear power is being waged with many of the same arguments made by the same people we saw after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. But while much of the argument is the same, the response on the part of the US government may well be different. After Three Mile Island, no new nuclear reactors were built in the United States. This time, even in the midst of international panic over the spread of radiation, Energy Secretary Steven Chu restated the government's commitment to nuclear power, to which it's pledged $36 billion in loan guarantees.

Bets are also being placed for what the nuclear crisis will mean for other energy investments. Some see the disaster in Japan as a boon for renewable energy; others worry that it will reduce commitments to clean energy. The natural gas industry has rolled out commercials across cable news outlets and some believe that natural gas will be the big "winner" out of this nightmare.

And yet what's distinctly missing from the public conversation is any real acknowledgment that we're a-d-d-i-c-t-e-d to energy, and lots of it. And that addiction comes with a huge cost, the price at the pump being the least of it. We're not going to end this addiction anytime soon, nor should we. Human progress has been achieved on the back of abundant energy, and elements of that progress (education, human rights, time) is not something any of us wants to see in the rear view mirror. Which is why it might be useful—as it becomes increasingly clear that the Age of Easy Energy is over—that we have an adult conversation about the best (read: safest, most productive, and most aligned with our values) uses for the energy we do have. The #1 thing we can do to provide us the time and freedom to have that conversation is to use less of it. While that's still voluntary.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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