The Fukushima reactors and their associated buildings have been exploding, melting and burning for not quite a week yet, but already the sense of déjà vu is inescapable.
As I commented in this space last June, the oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico had me checking the news compulsively to see if the well had been capped, and wondering despairingly if we were watching the end of the world unfold invisibly below us. Now, we once again find ourselves watching helplessly as an environmental catastrophe of our own making unfolds in slow motion, and worrying how its contamination will affect the immedate area and rest of the world, including ecosystems, the food chain and public health.
Already there has been a good deal of discussion about the extent to which the events at Fukushima will derail the so-called nuclear "renaissance", and perhaps speed up investment in renewable energy. However, this morning on the radio a young woman in Tokyo really helped put the incident into perspective for me. She told the CBC reporters that she was determined to finish her schooling so that she could help her country rebuild. Left unsaid was that she no longer thought of her education as a path to pursue a personally fulfilling career; instead she was prepared to sacrifice such rewards for her fellow citizens.
More remarkably however, she observed how Tokyo's famous neon landscape had dimmed as a part of the country's planned rolling blackouts, so as to conserve energy – and she thought that, if the nuclear disaster helped her people stop wasting so much energy then perhaps some good would come out of it.
I hadn't been previously aware of the extent to which Japan had invested in nuclear power: 55 reactors in 17 sites providing about a third of the nation's electricity. When we think of the Japanese cityscape, throbbing with neon lights in every direction, it is sobering – and now, even sickening – to think of what the cost of such extravagance may turn out to be.
While beautiful, these displays entailed lethal risks that hardly crossed our minds. Yet, had a regime of greater conservation, renewables and efforts to reduce light pollution been a part of that country's energy policy for decades, would it really have been necessary to to build 55 reactors? Would there even be reactors burning now at Fukushima?
I realize this is being highly speculative. And I certainly don't mean to single out Japan for being uniquely profligate with its energy consumption. My own Canada clearly stands out shamefully in this regard, with our citizens ranking among the greatest per capita energy users in the world.
But Fukushima -- like the Deepwater Horizon blowout before it -- shows that our energy policy debates need to include the potential for global catastrophe in the balance sheets. Is maintaining our energy consumption as it presently stands really worth running such terrible and terrifying risks? Is all of the future to pay for our ability to run the lights all night long and power our "vampire" appliances?
An excellent occasion to start this conversation in earnest would be this year's Earth Hour, Saturday March 26th at 8:30 pm, as part of a global campaign to promote awareness and energy conservation. In solidarity with the Japanese, we too can shut down our power consumption, and consider its consequences.
As our young woman in Tokyo shows us, times such as these call upon us to sacrifice. Not all of us will be rolling up our sleeves and helping to rebuild coastal Japan, but surely, when it comes to our energy usage and energy policy-making, we can give more thought to the ultimate costs of our lifestyles, and who is paying them.
[Image: freyapix (flickr)]