Fukushima, Mon Horreur - The Dream of Economic Reason Gives Birth to Tremendous Catastrophes
By: Elmar Altvater
(in: transform 8/2011, May 2011 http://www.transform-network.net/en/home/journal-transformeurope/english/issue-082011/display-anzeige-not-in-menu/article//Fukushima-Mon-Horreur-The-Dream-of-Economic-Reason-Gives-Birth-to-Tremendous-Catastrophes.html)
Co-President of the party DIE LINKE, Klaus Ernst, explained the meager results of his party in the March 27, 2011 German regional elections (3.1% in Rhineland-Palatinate, 2.8% in Baden-Wuerttemberg) and the two-digit increase in the vote of the Greens after the heated electoral campaign focusing on nuclear policy in the wake of the catastrophe of Fukushima, in which the topic of social justice had been pushed to the background. In his words: “If everything is contaminated with radiation, even a minimum wage does not help”.
That is true. Even the global economic crisis which continues to cause pain and which has manoeuverd some states to the brink of bankruptcy, and the Euro-zone nearly to its collapse, is less often spoken about than the nuclear disaster in Japan, at 9,000 kilometres from Europe. This is globalisation in its concreteness: supply and trade chains, financial transactions and migration, cultural exchange, the internet and mobile phones, not to mention the formal and informal meetings of the G-8, the G-20 etc., have created not only a virtual but a very real proximity. And now radioactively contaminated material in containers could be distributed from Japan to the entire world. Does the container – the symbol and vehicle of globalisation – have to be abolished, and is it necessary, after the liberalisation of customs and passenger security controls, to introduce new radioactivity controls? Where are the limits of globalisation? The answer is: in nature, as Frederick Engels clairvoyantly explained in the reprimand in his “Dialectics of Nature”: “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us … Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature … but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst…”. If the productive and destructive forces are sufficiently developed – and this is the case in the nuclear age –, economic rationality transforms itself not only into irrationality but into catastrophes.
Nature and our relations to nature are moving up on the agenda. Up to now, the parties only tried to demonstrate their “economic competence”; with such aspirations, the SPD, for example, won the regional elections in Hamburg in February 2011. This mostly amounts to a promise of relentless opportunism in economic policy. Its rationality consists in servicing powerful capital groups and humoring their media. Competent economic performance is measured at the economic growth rate of a country or a region. That was the understanding of a maxi-coalition, also share of by parts of Die LINKE: the economic problems of our times can be tackled with growth or rather with “acceleration of growth”. A law for the acceleration of growth belongs therefore in the bag of tricks of the conservative-liberal coalition in Germany. This could be plagiarism, since, like her former minister of defence, Angela Merkel has also plagiarised. But from whom? – from the left Lula government in Brazil, which has been putting into effect a “program for the acceleration of growth”, with great economic success, albeit with disastrous environmental consequences.
Meanwhile, the Greens promise “green” and sustainable growth with a “Green New Deal”, whatever they might understand by it. Die LINKE – although not unanimously – insists on the necessity of growth, on condition that it is balanced and resource-saving. Obviously, growth is still the ideological and political anchor of stability in a society which, as Günther Anders wrote in the 1950s, “incessantly works at the production of (its) own downfall” and thinks it can continue on this path only by using up ever more resources and energy, i.e. by growth, until the bitter end.
Yet, is it even possible at all?
Doubts are in order, because “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”, such as the ones Francisco Goya drewin his “Caprichos”. Something has happened that was not planned in any script of the mainstream economy: First, the meltdown of world finance after the subprime debacle in the USA and the bankruptcy of the Lehman Bank. Sneers and scorn for the theory of the efficient, because neo-liberalised, financial markets. This was followed by the “crashes” in the real economy and the soaring of state debt, which made the Euro-zone tremble. The economy’s problem, so it was hoped, could be solved by enormous sums of money from the public treasuries. This is a misunderstanding for which especially those have to pay dearly who are not mobile enough to “optimise” their tax payments by capital flight, fleeing, that is, the national tax offices. But the outrage over tax dodging or fraud or over economic and social injustice is drowned out by screaming ecological alarm bells.
We have gotten so used to red alerts that we could easily carry on with our “sleep of reason”. Climate change is already embedded as an almost inescapable fate in our everyday lives. It is well known that the combustion products of fossil fuels remain in the earth’s atmosphere for about 120 years and heat it up. The laws of nature are responsible. Once used up, fossil reserves are not available a second time. As fuels they are gone, but in the burning process the useful hydrocarbons have been converted into contaminating carbon dioxide. In nature, nothing gets lost – that is what the axioms of thermodynamics say – but in an irreversible process the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes the climate catastrophe with its secondary and tertiary consequences, of which climatologists are warning: floods and periods of drought at times and in places where they are not supposed to happen, melting of the glaciers and disappearance of the polar ice caps, “unusual weather events”. The heat in Russia during the summer of 2010 has claimed about 55,000 human lives, the insurers are telling us in their annual damage balances.
At this point we can start applying the costs multiplication table to the climate catastrophe and decide with economic rationality if the climate change should be permitted to take its course and the damages taken into stride, or if they are to be prevented by precautionary measures.
The precautionary principle follows directly from the discrepancy emphasised by Hans Jonas in his “Imperative of Responsibility” between the spatial and temporal scope of our actions, which is increasing with economic growth and our knowledge about the consequences of our actions. This incongruity leads to the paradox that, like the economy, also our knowledge is growing and expanding geometrically, but that, on the other hand, we can only know even less about the unintentional side effects our intention-governed actions will have in time and place. Jürgen Habermas described this as the “new complexity”. The precautionary principle in politics is derived from the philosophical principle of responsibility. The precautionary principle is contested. Nobody will find it unreasonable, yet the consequences to be drawn from it are disputed and will remain so at least as long as the belief / superstition prevails that by boosting growth and competitiveness most problems of the world can be solved. Those who want to increase the importance of the precautionary principle must stand up against the rationality presenting itself as the one and only alternative, and against the self-assertiveness of economy as a science, and fight the lobbyist groups who rank short-term profit above long-term provision. The possibility of a catastrophe as a consequence of this rationality has been repressed. Thus the reversal of rational patterns of action into an overall social irrationality has been removed from the horizon of our thinking and acting.
This does not only show itself at the end of the fossil fuel chain, with the emission of greenhouse gases, but already at its beginning, in an irrational effect of strictly rational action, in the extraction of fossil fuels. Also, at that point catastrophes can obviously not be ruled out. The oil spillage in the Gulf of Mexico more than one year ago after the explosion of the oil platform Deepwater Horizon has brought home to us the enormous risks involved in the haulage of so-called “non-conventional” oil from the deep oceans after the “conventional” oil runs low. So, the fossil age, which started out with coal and the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 18th century, is running out of its fuels. This is a revolution, whether or not it is so perceived. The fuel and its transformation and usage systems, which have driven the modernist as well as the post-modernist ages, are on the decline or becoming obsolete. The fossil, Fordist or post-Fordist culture is waning. However, it is not ending without struggle. Murderous wars are fought over access to the remnants of the resources and over the influence on their marketing and price-formation, in Iraq and in Libya, in the delta of the River Niger and in Sudan.
For a long time the belief prevailed that the nuclear age was the alternative to the epoch of coal, oil and gas. The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki of August 1945 has deeply carved in humankind’s memory the tremendous power of destruction of nuclear energy. However, it has also nourished the illusion that after the terrible Second World War this immense energy could be used as “atoms for peace” in the world. The symbol of the first World Exhibition after World War II in Brussels in 1958 was “Atomium”, an imitation of a cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times and standing 102 meters tall. The atom was accessible on escalators, tamed and useful to humans. This atomic optimism found its quite critical organ in Germany in the magazine “Das Atomzeitalter” (“The Nuclear Age”). Yet, since the 1960s, there has been ever more scepticism with the growing number of nuclear reactors and the aggravated problem of disposing of the nuclear waste.
Safe disposal is part of the idea of precaution, a principle which was agreed upon as binding in the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Decelopment in Rio de Janeiro and also in the EU Environmental Laws. Only in this way the nuclear cycle between the mining of the uranium and the final storage of the spent nuclear rods can be closed: Uranium ore is mined from the crust of the earth and then enriched in such a way that nuclear energy can be transformed in a controlled way into thermal energy. This again can be used for powering steam turbines and thus indirectly for the generation of electricity.
What is also seen here is that according to the first principle theorem of thermodynamics nothing gets lost, really. The spent nuclear fuel rods remain and have to be stored safely, and that for more than ten thousand years. Disposal means complete isolation from natural erosion and human contact. That this is impossible for only 30 years not to speak of more than 10,000 was shown by the catastrophe of Fukushima. If the nuclear cycle closes, it does so in the form of an explosion with nuclear fallout. The cycle is closed in catastrophe, and that makes nuclear technology so dangerous.
Fukushima. A beautiful name for a huge accident in the history of mankind and, different from “Hiroshima, mon amour”, an all too horrible setting for a love story, contaminated with radioactivity. Whether the “horreur” of Fukushima is able to open people’s eyes, remains yet to be seen. It did not even happen after Chernobyl. And will it after Fukushima? US President Obama has defiantly announced the building of further nuclear reactors for energy-policy reasons. Turkey is planning new nuclear power plants even in areas at risk of earthquakes. South Korea does not see any reason to stop building its 14 planned nuclear power stations and to refrain from almost doubling the capacity of 18.4 gigawatt to 35.9 gigawatt by 2024. After cars, nuclear power stations are to provide energy for the semiconductors and ships of the South Korean export offensive. Nuclear power plants as a commodity – the contracts for the purchase, credit, use and maintenance comprising three or four decades, while for bearing the consequences of the production and use of the commodity of a “nuclear power station” human society is made responsible for the rest of its history, that is for a time-span of more than ten thousand years (the half-life of plutonium 239 is 24,110 years), which is a period more than twice as long as from the first beginnings of early Mesopotamian history 11,000 years ago.
Do those in favor of nuclear power actually know what they are doing?
In Germany, after the Japanese catastrophe, the Merkel government has repeatedly questioned nuclear energy after it had less than one year ago revoked the nuclear phase-out law adopted by its red-green predecessors in government in a decision on the prolongation of the operating lives of German nuclear power stations. Yet now the oldest reactors are being decommissioned for three months to have their security tested during a temporary moratorium. An ethics commission is to accompany this examination. In the EU all 143 nuclear plants are to be stress-tested. What the government thinks of this decision, Minister of Economy Brüderle blurted out in a meeting with the BDI, the German Association of Industrialists. According to the transcript Brüderle “indicated in his explications that in the face of pending regional elections there is pressure on politics, and thus the decisions are not always rational”. Like a model homunculus oeconomicus, Brüderle is equipped with a rationality which does not allow him to think for a moment of the next 24,000 years but only of the board infront of his head. He is a pitiable figure who is confident enough to believe he can conceive energy politics fit for the future. This applies to economic competence in general: competent energy politics serves the short-term profit interests of energy companies.
Unlike the hopes and promises made by the Brüderles of all nations, nuclear energy is not an alternative to the fossil fuels of coal, oil and gas. This is the most important lesson to learn from the nuclear catastrophe of Fukushima, which has confirmed the almost forgotten or repressed lessons from Chernobyl and Harrisburg. The international nuclear lobby refuses to accept and, in this poltics follows it, possibly for the reason which Hermann Scheer mentioned referring to the “energethic imperative” in his book published shortly before his death in October 2010. “In all the states owning nuclear weapons, nuclear technology is a ‘double-use-technology’. Nuclear armaments these lessons without a nuclear-technological potential is unthinkable … Stopping the use of nuclear energy would mean to have to realise disarmament of nuclear weapons.” Nuclear power plants intimidate not because they are time-bombs, but because they document the technical know-how and the potential for building the nuclear bomb. For which other reason is Iran prevented from building a nuclear power station?
The energy model prevailing in recent decades, with coal, oil, gas and the atom at its core, must be abandoned as quickly as possible. Yet such exits at short notice are hard to find. Of course, renewable energies could be the alternative. Yet this will only become a reality if not only the fuel is replaced, but also the energy transformation systems along with the ways of life and production attached to them, that is, if social relations and the human relation to nature are also transformed. Solar energy and an economy of solidarity could become cornerstones of a socialism of the 21st century.
“Where From Here?”
“Learned Helplessness” by Paul Krugman
“Revolution in America” by Micah White
“Work History” by Harald Meyerson