Sunday, March 20, 2011

Prophet of the Nuclear Apocalypse: Keith Snow on the Japanese Nuclear Disaster

Last week when I commented on the nuclear disaster that followed the tsunami and earthquake in Japan on Mar. 11, my estimate of the eventual outcome was guardedly optimistic. A week and several explosions and fires later, no one has been able to get close enough to the damaged reactors to make a thorough assessment of the situation, and radiation is starting to show up in water and the food chain in Japan, although initially at low levels. And after reading the grim prophetic words of Keith Snow, I have a different viewpoint altogether to consider.

Mr. Snow is an independent investigative journalist whose courageous and iconoclastic efforts to reveal hidden agendas, systemic lies, and outrageous wrongs have won him numerous awards. He was also a student of mine many years ago at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and spent several years as an engineer in the military-industrial complex before experiencing a change of heart. He has turned his considerable technical abilities and understanding to writing accurate, informed reports on things that the usual media outlets seldom cover, at least in the way Mr. Snow covers them.

In the Old Testament of the Bible, every now and then God would send a prophet to his people the Jews. The prophet’s job was not a pleasant one. If the people had been behaving well, they wouldn’t have needed a prophet to draw their attention to their misdeeds. As a usual thing, the prophet was ignored at best, and mocked, scorned, jailed, or killed at worst. Because the prophet’s message threatened the status quo and the vested interests of the powerful, he rarely found a large audience. But the sign of a true prophet was truth: telling it like it was, and sometimes foretelling events that later came to pass.

Keith Snow is a modern-day prophet. He’s aware of this: his blog on the Japanese nuclear disaster at begins with a quotation from the New Testament about false prophets. He doesn’t quite come out and say he’s the real McCoy, but the implication is clear. As with other reporting he’s done, he sticks to one or two consistent themes.

One theme is the way that corporate interests move heaven and earth to protect themselves, through exerting influence on commercial media by advertising, on politicians through donations and lobbying, and by exploiting powerless populations by neglecting basic safety and health issues that might cost too much. Mr. Snow has a deeply critical view of commercial (i. e. corporation-controlled) media, which nowadays includes almost everything except independent bloggers such as himself. He describes in his current blog how the major media outlets such as the New York Times have skewed their coverage of the nuclear disaster in Japan to favor corporate interests such as those of General Electric, which is responsible for the reactor designs that failed during the earthquake. He shows how corporate-friendly experts have downplayed the danger of radioactive isotope releases from the damaged plants, and cites hard facts straight from scientific tables to show that materials like cesium-137 and strontium-90 are not items that you want showing up in your dinner salad—or anywhere else nearby, not for many, many years. He harshly (and correctly, I believe) rakes the plant designs over the coals for a number of basic flaws that have been at least partially corrected in some later designs—but the Japanese electric utilities wanted to recover their substantial investments in the older technology, at least up to last week when the whole complex was apparently written off in efforts to stop the crisis. Just for the sake of balance, I would urge anyone who read my post last week on the nuclear crisis in Japan to read Mr. Snow’s much more detailed and technically deep analysis of the situation.

Mr. Snow and I have some philosophical differences, but that does not keep me from recognizing the importance of paying attention to voices like his. I will admit that sometimes, after reading one of his more vitriolic analyses of a current commercial technology such as nuclear power, the use of fossil fuels, or the Wild-West-style mining of a technologically important mineral such as coltan, I want to sit him down and ask him, “Okay, these terrible consequences have resulted from the corporation-dominated market operating internationally to produce and satisfy technological needs and wants of millions or billions of people. If you were king for a year, or a decade, how would you do things differently? Would you take the Distributist line and prohibit the existence of any corporation larger than a certain size? And how pray tell would you enforce such a law?” It is a conversation I have never had with him, but I keep looking for hints in his writings of how it would proceed. I don’t see many.

As a teacher in an electrical engineering program, I believe that acquiring technical knowledge for the purposes of commercial development of engineered products and services is a net societal good. Yes, it can cause trouble. Yes, people can be killed, deprived of liberty, impoverished, or otherwise harmed by wrongly made technology. But I still believe the technological enterprise is worth pursuing, although perhaps with a much greater awareness of its long-term effects than has been customary in the past.

This may sound strange, but a culture can’t stop and think too much about what it’s doing, or else it risks the chance of general paralysis. The heart must be involved as well as the head. This is not a criticism of Mr. Snow—his journalism clearly involves his heart as well as his head, probably more than most journalism does. What I am trying to say is, we need to hear words like Mr. Snow’s, not only after a disaster that happens, but before other disasters in order that they may not happen. The proper response is not to cease building engineered things altogether, but to build them more responsibly and wiser. And the working out of what that means can take a lifetime.

It is the nature of a prophet’s words that one cannot judge their correctness at the time they are spoken. Some of the things Mr. Snow speaks of in his nuclear disaster blog may not come to pass for years, or decades, or centuries. Only generations in the far future will be able to make a truly informed judgment on the rightness of his words. To those of us in the present, Mr. Snow’s words pose a challenge: do you believe him? And if so, to what degree? And that, dear reader, is a decision that you must make for yourself.

1 comment:

  1. You talk of corporations satisfying demand through terrible consequences being inevitable. If corporations were just held accountable for their actions surely the situation would take a huge turn for the better.

    If the major international leaders - EU, USA, China, agreed the rules corporations would be left with no choice but to act responsibly. Extremely pie in the sky but it sounds so simple.