Thursday, 17 March 2011

Meltdown Modernity

The earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan present a major threat to modernity in an advanced First World country with a lauded, now debt-ridden economy, a stable society inhabited by people described as 'stoical' and 'pliant', living under a benignly authoritarian political imperium and enjoying widespread material well-being in complex urban and rural settings, lit up, in good measure, by nuclear power plants. 
The earth's crust shifts, cracks open and buildings topple, motorways buckle. Fragile humans, mere flesh and bones, perish in the debris. Then the sea surges, heaves up and casts itself upon the beaches and the coastal plains, smothering all before it, before sucking everything into its great maw. Japan lives precariously on the fault lines and the edge of the sea. Is being modern sufficient? The most advanced monitoring systems, the best building controls, the most sophisticated social and public awareness and preparedness are to no avail in the face of the energy of the earth schism and the thundering brine. Fault lines trace the earth's crust and nuclear power plants bestride them in ungainly and delicate poses.
Japan is not Pakistan, where the 2005 earthquake caused 73, 000 deaths and a national catastrophe. Japan is not even New Zealand, where the more recent devastation in Christchurch chastened English-speaking Westerners because New Zealand is known, modern and, though far, is not foreign. In the way that Pakistan is unknown, far, not modern, and foreign.  
Some distance west of the epic centre of the Japanese earthquake lies Chernobyl in the Ukraine (51 degrees North, 30 degrees East), where, 25 years ago, a disastrous meltdown of a nuclear power plant occurred. The aftermath continues to sicken a vast area around the site. Estimates are contested but a figure of one million dead as a direct result of the meltdown is current.
Putting the atomic activity of the stars inside a human-engineered facility is the  apex of modernity, a triumph of ingenuity and endeavour, grand-gesturing and profiteering by homo faber, the scientist and businessman. Yet Chernobyl remains a death-trap, threatening once more as the concrete sarcophagus that was hastily constructed to contain its over-heated core degrades and cries out for renewal.  
Engineers flood the the Japanese nuclear plants with sea water to cool the cores, in an act so ironic it seems unreal. The central bank floods the financial system with liquidity. People flee and panic mounts. Warnings from the power plants grow more strident. Modernity melts down. One man survives astride a piece of roofing, miles out to sea, a primeval image of a man clinging to timber and tile. Adrift, yet afloat. 

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