Prediction: “As primary resources become technically harder and riskier to extract and economies become increasingly unstable, corners will be cut leading to one or more man-made environmental disasters on the scale of the Gulf oil spill or the Hungarian toxic sludge”.
Hokusai’s famous 1820 painting of fishing boats battling through The Great Wave portrays a distinctly Japanese awareness of the vulnerability of human life amidst the tremendous forces of nature. The Japanese people, living on their earthquake-prone islands where three tectonic plates meet on the Pacific Ring of Fire, have always been subjected to severe floods and hurricanes and, as the last few days have so tragically demonstrated, to the devastating power of earthquakes and the great tsunamis that can follow them.
So it is not surprising that the ancient Shinto religion, originating in Japan perhaps as long ago as 3000 BCE, emphasises a ritualised respect for living in harmony with nature and with the gods and spirits that exist in all things and people. Shinto only ceased to be the country’s state religion when after World War II, US occupation forces under General MacArthur enforced a separation of religion and state. Nevertheless, although strict adherence has declined since 1946, many Shinto beliefs and practices still persist strongly in Japanese culture.
In Shrine Shinto, the main Japanese Shinto tradition, certain places are held to be particularly sacred, where the ordinary and the everyday interact with the divine. At these shrines, Japanese people can obtain talismans to ensure good health, safe travel, success in business or in school examinations, trouble-free childbirth or good fortune in any other of the risky endeavours that life presents. Shinto rites are still commonly performed at the opening of factories and other industrial sites, including nuclear power plants, to safeguard them, make them prosperous and ensure that all functions and operates safely and correctly.
But, needless to say, in modern secular times this ancient Shinto wisdom of respect for the sacred and for the power of nature has not been permitted to stand in the way of industrial progress. When in 2007 a Shinto priest called Hayashi objected to plans for a nuclear plant on a Shinto shrine near Kaminoseki, his congregation – who stood to benefit from the new prosperity it would bring – petitioned for his dismissal by the Shinto Shrine Association and he was duly sacked.
In Japan, as everywhere else on the planet, as the human footprint has increased alongside rapid industrial and technological advances, so has population size and popular expectations for a high standard of living. So it is inevitable that, as the Japanese – and indeed all of us who live in the developed world – seek to maintain our advanced modern lifestyles in the face of finite planetary resources and untamable planetary forces, we take more and more risks in providing for our demands.
For much of Japan’s history, its people lived at only subsistence level but early industrialisation and vastly improved agricultural yields throughout the 18th and 19th centuries led the country to achieve a rapid economic growth and an average standard of living that, by some accounts, was higher than that of England during the same period. Japan’s population reached 30 million as early as 1750, but then remained stable at below 40 million until 1900, since when it has once again risen at a phenomenal rate to reach 127 million by the new millennium. Since only 20% of Japan’s land mass is readily inhabitable, Japan experiences the same problems that confront other highly urbanised and industrialised societies throughout the world with heavily overcrowded cities and severe congestion and pollution problems.
Less than 15% of Japan’s land mass is agricultural so, despite achieving amongst the highest crop yields in the world, with its disproportionally large population, the country is only 40% self-sufficient in food and thus is dependent on significant imports of wheat, maize and soya, primarily from the USA.
The country is also heavily reliant on imported energy. Following the oil shock of the 1970’s, Japan has worked to reduce its need for imported petroleum and since then, through a combination of hydro and more than 50 nuclear power installations, has become one of the most energy efficient countries in the world.
By token of its disciplined national work ethic and its large, well-educated and industrious workforce, Japan has grown since the end of World War II to become by the 1980s the world’s third largest economy.
However, as more and more of us are belatedly recognising, however efficient, industrious and single-minded in its pursuit of economic growth a society may be, such a rate of growth could not last indefinitely. With few natural resources of its own and its manufacturing industries absolutely dependent on imported raw materials, Japan’s remarkable long-lived period of sustained growth began to decline in the 1990s in the face of increased trade completion from other rapidly industrializing countries in Asia. Despite a brief return to growth through the early 2000s, global economic turmoil since 2007 has once again caused world demand for Japans goods to plummet and in 2009 the Bank of Japan reported a real contraction of GDP of -5.2%.
Even without the current tragic events adding to the country’s economic woes, the wisdom of the world’s prevailing model of infinite exponential growth had already been called into serious question and Japan’s economic situation demonstrates this particularly clearly. The country’s precarious reliance on foreign trade and currency to be able to import the essential materials and foodstuffs that sustain its advanced living standards was already obviously unsustainable. The additional impulsion to reduce reliance on imported energy that made the construction of nuclear plants in a region of such seismic volatility seem worth the risk serves only to highlight the heightened stakes we all now face as we struggle (and fail) to maintain life-styles that too many of us still regard as non-negotiable in a world of depleting energy, growing food and water insecurities and increasingly hostile climatic conditions.
Thinking beyond the terrible human cost of Japan’s still unfolding tragedy, it has come at a time when the lessons of Chernobyl have been relegated to history, collective amnesia has prevailed and even long resistant environmentalists have been converted to the ‘need’ for many more nuclear plants around the world if we are to de-carbonise our atmosphere and at the same time maintain our economies. Currently 62 new nuclear plants are being built around the world and a further 300 or so in the planning stages. As reports are emerging that radiation from the 40 year old reactors at Fukushima has now reached “harmful levels”, an urgent rethink of the wisdom of this particular techno-fix to our energy and climate predicament would seem to be eminently sensible. There are many other ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, not least becoming willing to reduce our profligate levels of consumption. We simply need to make up our minds whether we prefer the instant gratification of our current Faustian bargain, our side of which is rapidly becoming due, or are willing to explore the potential for leading more equitable lives in a simpler, less adundant but more stable world.
Insurance companies the world over are urgently reconsidering what these days constitutes an ‘Act of God’. Earthquakes and tsunamis are clearly natural disasters, but oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and in Nigeria, toxic dumping off the Ivory Coast of Africa, chemical leakage at Bhopal and red sludge in Hungary are indisputably man-made catastrophes that are now occurring with frightening regularity. Man-made global warming will only increase the frequency and impacts of extreme weather such as last year’s floods in Pakistan and this year’s in Queensland, Brazil, Sri Lanka, South Africa and the Philippines.
In the same way that Shinto priests may now find themselves in a quandary over whether any longer to invoke the blessing of the gods to safeguard the fortunes of the Japanese nuclear industry, so insurance assessors will wrestle over whether radiation leaks and, God forbid, nuclear melt-down resulting from a tsunami or wheat harvests up in smoke during a unprecedented Russian drought are any longer entirely natural and unavoidable disasters.