How to Properly Mitigate Nature's Forces

Technology solves everything - or does it? This argumentative essay analyzes the events which took place in 2011 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power-plant disaster by analyzing past natural disasters, issues of human complicity and new scientific research which suggests a less technological approach to mitigating natural occurrences.

Nature as Technology

On the afternoon of Friday March 11th, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake was recorded on the eastern side of Japan’s main island. The undersea mega-thrust earthquake created one of the worst tsunamis ever recorded in Japan’s history. Wreaking havoc throughout rural northeastern Japan, the tsunami decimated the Fukishima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant located in the town of Okuma. Releasing countless amounts of radioactive material into the sea and surrounding environment, the effects of this nuclear meltdown will be observed for an estimated thousand years. What led to such a catastrophic and destructive event? Japan is no stranger to earthquakes and tsunamis. The island nation has experienced these phenomena throughout its entire history. Who then is to blame for such lack of preparation and adaptation – god, society, politics, nature itself? The answer to these questions is not always transparent. What is clear is rapid technological modernization has given society a false sense of security in hazardous places of geographic risk. The nuclear catastrophe at Fukishima Daiichi illustrates that while nations should not completely disband protective and innovative technologies, society must live more harmoniously with nature. Success will rely on consciously implementing mitigation solutions backed by a logical method of thought known as “system 2”, rather than an involuntary emotional “system 1” response.[1] Technology, if intelligently deployed as a hybrid with nature, can improve our ability to reduce the destruction environmental incidents cause, but overall, our own habitats are the best mitigator of nature’s powerful forces.

When dealing with environmentally catastrophic events, blaming external forces is an enduring function of human biological behavior. Ancient religions were often founded on such incidents. Researcher Donal O’Mathuna explains,

"Many ancient religions, from Greek and Roman mythology to various tribal religions, are thought to have arisen in response to various natural phenomena, including disasters. The view was that disasters occurred because the gods were angry and sent the disaster to punish guilty humans. Something was needed to appease the gods, and various rituals and sacrifices developed, along with a priesthood to discern what is needed and carry out the appeasement activities" (28).[2]

Using divine intervention as an explanation for seemingly uncommon, yet from a scientific standpoint quite common, natural phenomena is prevalent throughout all cultures in human history. The explanation for why humanity does this lies in how our brains process and respond to events outside of our control. Economist Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, labels two distinct modes of thought - System 1 and System 2. The latter process, “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex calculation” (21) while system 1, “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control” (20). Typically, when responding to an abrupt and intense natural occurrence, human emotion runs high. This triggers a System 1 response, which subconsciously produces a reason to explain disaster. However, in response to natural phenomenon, we must resist the natural inclination for our emotional system 1 process. It is crucial for governments, societies and individuals to deploy well-thought out, reasoned and calculated solutions to improve our resilience to nature’s potentially destructive forces.

In modern history, the practice of blaming god’s wrath for events characterized as “natural disasters” has certainly faded. A poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute was quoted by Nicole Neroulias which, “found that a majority (56 percent) of Americans believe that God is in control of the world, but the idea of God employing Mother Nature to dispense judgement (38 percent of Americans) or God punishing entire nations for the sins of a few (29 percent) has less support”.[3] While the decline of explaining disasters as god’s will is a positive development, certain communities in areas of geographic risk still see a disproportionate amount of economic destruction and death.

Areas more vulnerable to damage from natural events are largely caused due to environmental classism and racism. Places of geographic risk are created or constructed when society ignores the risks associated with developing technologically, economically or culturally in a certain area. Author Theodore Steinberg illustrates how race in America impacted the events after a tremendous 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. The destruction to the local economy was unprecedented. Because of this, racial tensions in the southern city flared up, causing large amounts of social unrest. Steinberg writes,

"To appreciate the full meaning of the blacks’ reported behavior and how threatening it was to Charleston’s whites at the time requires some understanding of the ways in which race operated in this southern city. Explains historian Don Doyle, ‘The single overwhelming characteristic of race relations in Charleston was that a privileged white minority held onto its precarious position amid a sea of impoverished blacks’" (9).[4]

“Natural disasters” are about people, not nature, and when these events occur, the flaws of society – racism, classism etc. – are often exacerbated. These social ills in relation to geographies of risk were perhaps most apparent in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Once the storm passed, heavy flooding disproportionately affected minority communities. This is due to New Orleans’s historical economic contingency. Hurricanes are not racist - people are racist. Author Reilly Morse discusses this in an academic report,

"during slavery New Orleans represented an ‘early southern’ pattern of settlement with low-density, residential proximity of whites and blacks. After Emancipation and the end of the Civil War, this changed into a ‘classic southern’ pattern whereby whites forced African Americans to reside in undesirable areas subjected to frequent flooding; unhealthy air and noise levels; as well as unsanitary water and sewage conditions. Over the years, such undesirable areas included swamplands at the edge of the city as well as areas adjacent to railway industrial sites" (V).[5]

Racism is a flawed emotional response to deeply imbedded economic social practices and customs. Therefore, racism stems from a System 1 process of emotional behavior – there is no logical reason to act racist. The damage this renders on minority communities is unmeasurable and will only stop when humans are able to create calculated social adoption policies. The same processes of classism and geographic risk experienced throughout American history are reflected in the nuclear meltdown at Fukishima Daiichi.

Rural northeastern Japan had long experienced a decline in economic growth prior to the tsunami. Young people in northern Japan steadily left the region to pursue opportunity in Japan’s financially wealthy south thus leaving behind poor, economically declining communities. In a NYT article, reporter Michael Wines explains, “Well before disaster struck, this region was an economic and social laggard, leaching people and money to Japan’s rich urban south, sustained – even as opportunity moved elsewhere – by government largess and an unspoken alliance with the nuclear-power industry”.[6] In order to revive the ailing northern economy, the Japanese government opted to construct nuclear power plants throughout the region hoping these developments would bring back jobs and modernize the economy. The article explains that for job seeking workers in rural Japan, “the government took another tack: it promoted the construction of nuclear power plants along the coast. Two reactor complexes were built in Fukushima Prefecture; one in Miyagi, near Sendai.”6 Quoting the Japanese expert Daniel Aldrich, the piece further states, “There’s really no economic engine in these communities. These facilities bring $20 million or more to depopulating, dying towns. Many people saw these power plants as economic lifelines at a time when their towns are dying.”6 This is why it is illogical to blame society or government for the nuclear meltdown – before the tsunami hit, the reactor was not only boosting the economy, it was helping preserve the environment as a clean source of renewable energy. What then led to such a catastrophe?

The decision to build a nuclear reactor in a specific area of such great geographic risk was made from the process of System 1 thought – the way our brains are wired to solve seemingly difficult problems is the culprit. Both Japanese society and government knew the rural north was declining economically, scientists had incentives to construct new, renewable energy sources to further technological advancement - everybody wanted to support the local economy while also caring for the environment. Deliberation between scientists on the safety of the nuclear plant prior to construction did occur, however these discussions failed to account for the strength of tsunamis. According to The Japan Times, TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) lowered the elevation of construction to just 10 meters above sea level in order to construct the plant on artificially prepared bedrock in order to mitigate any earthquake affect. Furthermore, staff writers Reiji Yoshida and Takahiro Fukada report,

Recent interviews and past documents examined by The Japan Times show it was Tepco’s decision to cut away the bluff so the nuclear complex could be built on low ground, leaving it vulnerable to a massive tsunami like the one that struck on March 11th. Tepco dug another 14 meters below the surface to create basement floors, including those for the turbine buildings, where the emergency diesel generators were installed. They further state,

"analysis of the tsunami risk when planning the site’s construction determined that the lower elevation was safe because the sea wall would provide adequate protection for the maximum tsunami by the design basis."[7]

Clearly, too much faith was placed in sea wall technology as a mitigation strategy. Scientific caution was lacking the System 2 thought process. This approach would more thoroughly account for the sea wall’s shortcomings, the immense power of tsunamis and potential inaccuracy of scientific models. The failure to consider these possibilities resulted in devastating consequences.

Although blame for the nuclear meltdown cannot fully be placed on the Japanese government, the government should face strong criticism for disaster response. When catastrophes such as the Fukishima meltdown occur, it is due to human complicity. The most economically advanced places on Earth report the greatest number of natural disasters. Vulnerability is a social, political, historical and educational issue which is determined by the way in which people live in an area. Simply put, hazardous areas when combined with people equate to vulnerability. The government, while unable to predict the exact size and destructive power of the tsunami, should have been more aware of the vulnerability these nuclear plants faced. An article in The Guardian states that a court, “ruling said the government should have used its regulatory powers to force the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), who were also held liable, to take adequate preventative measures.” The plaintiffs further asserted that the government could have predicted a tsunami of more than 10 meters would eventually strike the plant. They are correct in their assertion - the government was not respecting the power tsunamis (a common natural occurrence in Japan) render. In fact, the report stated, “They (lawyers) based their claim on a 2002 report in which government experts estimated there was a one in five chance of a magnitude-8 earthquake occurring and triggering a powerful tsunami within the next 30 years.”[8] Why were such warning signs ignored? Human desire for wealth and power – emotional desires and a product of System 1 – are the cause. Collusion between the Japanese nuclear regulator minister and nuclear industry resulted in lax regulation protocols. The articles states, “The ruling echoed the conclusions by an independent parliamentary investigation, which described the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown as a ‘man-made’ disaster caused by poor regulation and collusion between the government, Tepco and the industry’s then watchdog, the nuclear and industrial safety agency (who has since been replaced).” The government certainly has to account for its actions, but solely blaming the Japanese government for the earthquake is not only illogical and unhelpful, it is a thought process of System 1. The real explanation for the destruction is much more complex.

To cast total blame on the government is unfair because, although disaster preparation should have been more thorough, the government did respond in a manner which had real impact. After the damaging effect of the tsunami took place, Yuki Edano, a top government official and chief cabinet secretary became the spokesperson for the government’s response. In a NYT article, reporter Ken Belson quotes Mr. Edano, “we believe that under very severe circumstances, with enough pressure placed on the government of having to make decisions of what needs to be done next, I believe we have selected the best option every time.” While this is a vague statement, he goes on to assert, “the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear power plant is a stable situation relatively speaking, but that much work remained before the damaged reactors, which are emitting high levels of radioactivity, were fully under control.”[9] Sometimes, in dealing with such a challenging situation, the best thing for a government to do is remain calm and poised while encouraging more work be done to improve the situation. In this regard, the Japanese government responded well. More importantly however, it is necessary for the government to examine a serious issue which is critical for understanding these disasters – the victims and how they lived in the area prior to the tsunami.

After the disaster occurred, it is crucial to study the manner in which the people of Fukishima prefecture lived and do so more diligently before natural phenomena occur in the future. Prior to the construction of nuclear reactors, Fukishima was a place of small local businesses and fisheries. Michael Wines writes “For centuries, inland residents farmed, and coastal residents fished. Over the years, farming declined in importance, and village fisherman have increasingly been routed by huge and more efficient factory ships.”6 For these economically disadvantaged peoples, the destruction caused by the tsunami practically sealed their fate. Kunio Imakawa, a poor, 75-year-old barber’s livelihood was completely upended. Wines states, “Mr. Imakawa and his wife, Shizuko, lost his three-chair barber shop, their second-floor apartment and all their belongings in the tsunami. Rebuilding would mean starting from scratch. And he said that simple math, calculated in yen and in years, showed it was not worth the effort. It’s too late to start over.” 6 Tragically, nuclear waste which spilled into the surrounding local areas guaranteed resettlement in his traditional home was impossible. This highlights one of the most important, and often misunderstood, concepts in mitigating natural phenomena, and can only be understood through a system 2 approach – improving technological capacity and resilience is not the most effective strategy.

Technological development, fueled by capitalism and the intention of mitigating nature’s processes, ironically, often adds to the environment’s overall damage. This pattern has been observed throughout history, yet humanity still has not been able to grasp this concept. In America, the Mississippi central floodplain frequently experiences huge floods. In Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a 3,000-foot flood wall to mitigate the effects floods have on local areas. The wall was constructed in order to protect Mark Twain’s hometown and when finished, “stood 12 feet high and surrounded the city like a fort.” Theodore Steinberg in the Introduction to Acts of God, states after construction, “No one could have imagined that such an incredibly rare deluge would wind up baptizing the flood wall only a month after its completion. In this respect, the wall gave a new meaning to the word timely. The Mississippi crested at nearly 32 feet, almost double flood-stage at Hannibal, making the 1993 flood far and away the worst in the city’s history. Yet despite all the water, the flood wall worked, and Hannibal’s downtown remained dry” (xviii). However, while the wall was able to withstand such tremendous flooding, and protect the Mark Twain home, it also left many of the town’s residents – those of lower economic standing – in harm’s way. Before the wall’s completion occurred in 1993, prior construction attempts had been made in the 1960’s. Unfortunately, those plans were shelved because, although they would protect both the downtown and poorer areas, Hannibal officials were unable to muster enough support. Steinberg explains, “They (Hannibal’s residents) wanted instead a more budget oriented, not to mention class conscious structure – one that would save Mark Twain’s old home and the rest of the downtown, but without the added expense of protecting the city’s poor. Predictably, Hannibal’s poorest residents were drenched in almost eight feet of water in 1993, leading some victims to question the city’s approach to flood control” (xix). The introduction quotes two south side Hannibal residents. One resident, named Virginia Foiles, remarked, “They put in a flood wall to save Mark Twain’s house and all the stuff about that dead man, so I don’t know why they don’t help the living” (xix). Another citizen, Donna Pagett, lamented, “Hannibal is for Mark Twain and Mark Twain only. They could care less about their people” (xix). Their justified frustration demonstrates how not only class, economy and racism play apart in the creation of disasters, but also culture. Since these are all human constructs, the effects natural phenomena incur are due to human complicity and are also observed in the Fukushima disaster.

Technological modernization has not only given societies a false sense of protection in places of geographic risk, technology often exacerbates the problems caused by natural occurrences. The seawall built around Hannibal was not only ineffective due to environmental racism and classism, it was also built with much skepticism from environmentalists. Steinberg writes,

"Environmentalists have long argued that the building of levees and walls has actually contributed to the destructiveness of floods. Although these structures offer short-term protection, when erected on both sides of a stream they force the water level to rise during heavy rain (instead of simply spreading out over the floodplain), causing it to surge over the top of the levee and punishing the ‘protected’ area with all the more force” (xviii)."

This was concern over a simple flood wall – not a technological marvel capable of releasing huge amounts of radioactive waste. In fact, when dealing with the aftereffects of natural phenomena in areas of advanced technological construction, it is inaccurate to even call them accidents. If human complicity in economic development never occurred, there would be no aftereffects. In an academic essay, Sara Pritchard states,

"it is misleading, if not hazardous, to use the common term ‘accidents’ to describe situations like that of Fukushima Daiichi because it minimizes the inherent risks of modern technological systems. Such language implies that accidents are caused by technical glitches or human error, when instead they should be understood as intrinsic to those systems. In short, accidents are normal and systemic, not extraordinary and inadvertent” (256-257)." [10]

Because situations such as Fukishima are not “accidents”, governments should not try to fix or improve the destroyed technological systems. There is no “fix” to a technology when it gets decimated by a tsunami. Rather, governments must question the purpose of technology prior to construction by asking, “What goals do these technologies serve? What political and economic interests shape the design and use of complex technological systems? And what assumptions about the natural world and human-natural relations are embedded in these technologies?” The last question regarding the embedded technological relationship between humans and nature is the most complex and important question posed - the solution requires a System 2 thought process.

It is crucial for humanity to both perceive vulnerabilities in complex technological systems while simultaneously taking heed of the greater conceptualization between environment and technology. Sara Pritchard quotes historian Thomas Hughes in her essay, “Those parts of the world that are not subject to a system’s control, but that influence the system, are called the environment. A sector of the environment can be incorporated into a system by bringing it under the system’s control” (257). 10 Therefore, technological systems are hybrids because they incorporate nature’s various elements. Technology both impacts and is influenced by its surrounding environment. This relationship holds true because technology will always be a part of a larger eco-system. The essay quotes author Charles Perrow, who states eco-system accidents are a result of,

"an interaction of systems that were thought to be independent but are not because of the larger ecology. Eco-system accidents illustrate the tight coupling between human-made systems and natural systems. There are few or no deliberate buffers inserted between the two systems because the designers never expected them to be connected” (258)."

Both academics successfully illustrate the ways in which society and governments must approach technology. They challenge reductive thinking and force us to perceive the vulnerabilities of complex technological systems. However, Hughes’s analysis did stretch too far from reality when he, “seemed to suggest that technology can, will, and should ultimately control nature” (258). This is wishful thinking and would be better kept for science fiction. If we still cannot prevent nuclear meltdowns from tsunamis or preserve our own climate, we are eons away from creating technology to control the environment. Even if we could, humanity would most likely not responsibly use such power. Nevertheless, specific technological critiques of the nuclear plant were given by both experts which would improve future mitigation capabilities. Perrow notes, “high pressure inside the reactors made it difficult for emergency workers to inject necessary cooling water” (258) while Hughes points out, “backup generators, for example, may seem mundane technologies especially in the so-called advanced West, but as the crisis at Fukishima Daiichi made abundantly clear, they are critical to the safe operation and shutdown of nuclear power stations during emergencies” (259). These critiques show that while nations should not completely disband improving complex technologies, such constructs have given society a false sense of security. There are still major safety factors which must be fixed, and humanity’s overall approach to disaster mitigation must evolve beyond technological solutions.

Technology certainly has a role to play, but overall nature is the best mitigator of nature. Disasters are not natural - people create the conditions which make the realization of a hazard’s potential a disaster. Improved technology has a role in mitigating disaster, but currently such constructs give communities a false sense of security. This inherently will increase the damage natural incidents incur on hazardous places. For instance, stronger built dikes and protective seawalls in Japan were thought to safely mitigate a tsunami’s effects. This created an emotional sense of safety, a feeling which arose from the System 1 cognitive processes. Thus, Japanese governments, scientists and communities were all complicit in building nuclear reactors along the coast. Even though these groups knew the furthest recorded extent of a tsunami by the site of the Namiwake shrine, they still chose to construct nuclear reactors along the shore. In a disaster report, editor Kenji Satake explains issues with constructing seawalls,

"such as high cost of construction and maintenance, modification of the present environment and inconvenience in utilizing the coastal area. Therefore, the countermeasures against tsunamis by only using the artificial coastal barriers are not recommended for all coastal areas and in future coastal management. For more appropriate management for natural disaster reduction and for keeping good environment, it is required that a new countermeasure method corresponding to coastal area includes the combination of artificial and natural functions" (280).[11]

A well-designed combination of natural and artificial functions is the best mitigator of natural phenomena, but humanity currently lacks effective instances of natural barriers.

One of the methods of natural function countermeasures for tsunamis is a coastal forest. This is an incredibly simple solution, yet the study conducted by Kenji Satake states that there are no actual established coastal forests for tsunami mitigation. The solution to reduce tsunami destruction is literally do nothing and let nature grow trees. The study outlines four distinct functions coastal forests serve to control tsunami damage. Firstly, coastal forests stop the deadly drifts of boats, wood and other large debris. This mitigates damage to other structures such as housing (which in turn reduces more debris drift) and saves lives. Another function is forests reduce the energy of a tsunami. The results of tsunamis passing through forest resistance inundates hydraulic forces and reduces the tsunami’s damaging effects. Thirdly, coastal forests provide lifesaving functions by catching people who would have been carried away by the tsunami. Lastly, coastal forests provide a natural barrier which prevents not only tsunamis but also sea wind and blown sand (280-281). Data from computer generated calculated waveforms with and without coastal forests show there are large effects of reducing tsunami inundation depth, current and hydraulic force by increasing forest width. The study states, “Increase in forest width can reduce the house damage, which is related to current velocity and hydraulic force. From these results of numerical simulation, it can be shown that the effects of increasing forest width are large to reduce tsunami inundation depth, current and hydraulic force. By using these numerical simulation results, the effect of coastal forest to tsunami reduction can be evaluated quantitatively” (286). It is ironic that the use of computer technology suggests using natural barriers and less technology is a better method of mitigating tsunamis, however this is very logical. For Earth’s entire history, the only mitigator nature had was nature – it is only within the last few decades (a simple blip on the geologic timescale) that human technological advancement is able to impact the environment in such a profound way. Society must realize technological innovation is still incredibly new, slow the process of development down and reestablish nature as a mitigator of nature.

Disasters are not natural - people create conditions which make potential hazards real disasters due to economic complicity and historical contingency. The solution is not to develop more technology, so it is faster, better and stronger. Humanity must allow our environment to balance nature’s forces, there is no better mitigator. Only when we are certain, after much analysis from a System 2 standpoint, technology can coexist within its natural setting should we deploy it as a hybrid with the ecosystem. Oftentimes, doing less is the best answer, yet it is almost always the hardest thing to do.

[1] Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York City, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. [2] O'Mathuna, Donal P. "Christian Theology and Disasters: Where Is God in All This?" Disasters: Core Concepts and Ethical Theories, 17 Oct. 2018, pp. 27-42. Springer, Accessed 17 Sept. 2020. [3] Neroulias, Nicole. "Most Don't Blame God for Disasters." The Christian Century, 24 Mar. 2011 [4] Steinberg, Theodore. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America. 2nd ed., Milton Keynes, Lightning Source, 2011. [5] Morse, Reilly. "Environmental Justice through the Eye of Hurricane Katrina." Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies Health Policy Institute, Accessed 18 Sept. 2020. [6] Wines, Michael. "'Too Late' for Some Tsunami Victims to Rebuild in Japan." The New York Times, 19 Mar. 2011 Accessed 18 Sept. 2020. [7] Yoshida, Reiji, and Takahiro Fukada. "Fukushima Plant Site Originally Was a Hill Safe from Tsunami." The Japan Times Accessed 23 Oct. 2020. [8] “Japanese Government Held Liable for First Time for Negligence in Fukishima." The Guardian, Accessed 19 Sept. 2020. [9] Bellson, Ken. "Official Defends Japan's Response to Disasters, Calling Them Unprecedented." The New York Times Accessed 19 Sept. 20 [10] Pritchard, Sara B. "An Envirotechnical Disaster Negotiating Nature, Technology and Politics at Fukushima." Environmental History Accessed 19 Sept. 2020. [11] Satake, Kenji. "Tsunamis Case Studies and Recent Developments." National Institute of Advanced Science and Technology Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

Fukishima Daiichi Disaster Essay
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