Japan's nuclear crisis pales in comparison to destruction from global climate change
As horrific as nuclear meltdowns are, they pale in significance to the global meltdown of climate change. The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant reminds us of the mortal threat we pose to the living earth itself. The good news? We can do something about that crisis.
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It is irrational for a society to rely on a form of energy that has to be protected by guards armed with submachine guns because it poses a catastrophic risk to the millions of people and animals living downwind of it. Pilgrim I and the more than 400 other nuclear plants throughout the world should be shut down. To accomplish such a feat, we will have to sharply scale back our overall energy usage, while shifting to renewable forms of energy. That transition should begin immediately. Certainly, humanity would still be left the ugly task of safeguarding thousands of tons of radioactive waste for the next 100,000 years. But the first step in getting out of a big hole, I’m told, is to stop digging. We should stop while we’re behind.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet to read in the incident at Fukushima only a lesson about the hazards of nuclear power would be to miss its larger significance.
The greater threat: global climate change
Coming less than a year after the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Japanese nuclear crisis points to the mortal threat our civilization more generally has come to pose to the living earth itself. As horrific as oil spills and nuclear meltdowns are, they pale in significance to the global meltdown of climate change. The vanished coastline in Miyagi, Japan only hints at the vast environmental destruction expected to come. Scientists project that millions of miles of coastline will disappear under the slow tsunami of global warming, as rising seas swallow entire cities and perhaps even nations.
Yet in contrast to the stark drama of the 9.0-magnitude trembler and tsunami that devastated northern Japan last week, the causes of climate change are far more prosaic. They are rooted in society, not nature, and they are entwined with daily life – automobiles, the meat industry, manufacturing.
The deeper lesson of Fukashima, if we have the courage to hear it, is that we cannot continue on our present course, with a heedless form of economic development that requires us to consume more and more energy and resources. Between 1 in 3 and 1 in 8 mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds will be extinct within decades, as a result of our cannibalization of the earth. An estimated 90 percent of the ocean’s commercial fish have already disappeared. Many coral reefs are dying, or are already dead.
It is inconceivable that the biosphere will be able to withstand such an onslaught for another century. We must change our way of life, and we must do it now.
My parents still live in Plymouth, downwind of Pilgrim I, and I have cousins living not far from the damaged reactor in Japan. But we all live in Fukushima.
John Sanbonmatsu is an associate professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.