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The silver lining of Japan’s earthquake

A massive earthquake and tsunami have accomplished what Japan's fiscal policy and central bank could not. Rebuilding a large swath of Japan will stimulate domestic growth and global demand, energy-efficient technologies, while helping to integrate China and Japan.

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Indeed, Japan is uniquely positioned for a green recovery. While the world has been focused on Islamist terrorism or the miracle of Chinese growth, the island nation has been engaging in a quiet revolution as the incubator of the energy-efficient technologies of the future.

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Japan is responsible for 50 percent of the world’s solar-power energy production. It uses 20 percent less energy to produce a ton of steel than the US, 50 percent less than China.

Innovations abound, from capturing “ice energy,” to more energy-efficient plasma screens, to capturing the kinetic energy of bridges that sway when traffic crosses them. The facility that housed the media at the Lake Toya G-8 summit in 2008 was cooled by snow stored in thermal insulation instead of by air conditioning.

As everyone knows, Japan is the leading manufacturer and exporter of hybrid cars, most famously the Toyota Prius. Honda has developed a hydrogen fuel cell car that is being prepared for mass production. Komatsu has just produced the world’s first-ever hybrid heavy machinery, a 20-ton excavator used in construction sites all across Asia.

Fertile soil for energy-efficient development

Beneath the surface of Japan’s faddish consumer society, the frugal culture of an island nation that must wisely husband limited resources still lives.

This cultural disposition that has been the fertile soil for the development of green technology will only be bolstered by the earthquake and tsunami damage to Japan’s nuclear reactors, as well as the economic jolt of rising oil prices resulting from the combined effects of the sudden drop in refining capacity because of Japan’s damaged facilities and the Libyan civil war prompted by the Arab revolt. (Talk about the “butterfly effect” of chaos theory. What scenario planner could have imagined that the political shock waves emanating from the self-immolation of a Tunisian shopkeeper would meet the geophysical shock waves generated by a moving subduction fault along the Pacific plate to cause yet another energy crunch?)

IN PICTURES: Japan's 8.9 earthquake

No one can anticipate or control the wrath of Mother Nature or political turmoil on the other side of the planet. But it is no less true for being a cliché that crises do present opportunities. When the carnage is cleared away, Japan, as it has proven in the past, is more capable than most nations of building an even better future.

Nathan Gardels is editor-in-chief of New Perspectives Quarterly and the Global Viewpoint Network of Tribune Media Services International.

© 2011 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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