As the world lays in wait for a nuclear reactor melt down in Japan many are scrambling to defend or decry nuclear power. Defenders say that nuclear power is clean and safe and that petroleum production is dirty and dangerous. Protesters say that the risks of a nuclear disaster far outweigh the benefits.
Japan is the third largest oil consumer in the world, yet still relies heavily on nuclear power. They need so much energy because they are are a major exporter of consumer goods. The troubles with the Fukushima plant will not only cause very real health concerns, but it will have a profound effect on the Japanese economy as power shortages stall the production of these goods. Stock markets are tumbling on prospect.
Here’s my question. Why isn’t the discussion about trying to live with less energy? I live in a province that thrives off of energy consumption, so often when I ask this question I get the standard answer of “people gotta live, you need food, you need to get to work, you need… “. But what do we really “need” energy for? Obviously, it takes energy to grow and transport food and we need to clothe and shelter ourselves. But we also use a lot of energy for luxury and convenience. I have too many clothes and too many things I don’t need. My kids have a mountain of plastic toys. Even my dogs have a relative abundance of toys. We eat food that consumes more energy to transport than to produce. I get tired and lazy and rely on the convenience of pre-packaged food. Just about everyone I know complains of the clutter in their house; things that they purchased and brought into their home that they don’t use. Every single one of those items took natural resources and energy to produce, and it will take energy to transport them to the landfill and even to recycle them into something more useful. But these are not things that we “need”. These are conveniences of modern day life that we’ve become accustomed to and feel entitled to.
Any type of energy production has inherent risks. Oil and gas production has a profound impact on the landscape and there is risks of contamination and blowouts. We saw what the risks were last summer in the Gulf; there’s no more that really needs to be said. Although statistically safer, nuclear energy has obvious wider consequences when things go wrong. When things do go wrong they seem to go terribly, catastrophically wrong because we don’t seem to be able to predict every scenario that could affect a nuclear plant. We’re hard wired to weigh the risks and rewards for everything that we consume, so I wonder why people are so willing to accept the risks of energy production so that they can fill their houses with mindless junk. Is it that we don’t directly associate what happened in the Gulf or Fukushima with buying a cheap plastic toy? Because we should.
Let me be clear: this is not a criticism of Japan. A terrible, terrible thing happened in Japan on March 11, 2011. It’s hard to believe how widespread the devastation is. Watching CNN last night it was hard to believe that Anderson Cooper was not standing in front of a movie set for Twister. Japan has lost so much; families, villages, livelihoods and history. Yet in the early days they remained stoic and set about recovering what they were able to. In so many parts of the country life carried on as normal because earthquakes are an innate part of the country and this was just a particularly bad one. But the country was designed for it. And then came the nuclear threat. Seeing explosions and being told that everything is fine. Being told to wait in their homes when they have none to go to. No means of evacuation because fuel is in short supply and the roads are covered in the kindling of their former lives. It’s a lot of uncertainty to face.
If as a society we reduced our “need” for such things, maybe a terrible natural disaster would not turn into a devastating human one as well. Our need for consumer goods drives Japan to have one of the highest energy demands in the world, so whatever result comes from Fukushima, we are all responsible for it.