State of the Planet

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Learning From Japan’s Catastrophe

Earthquake and Tsunami damage, Japan-March 12, 2011: This is a satellite image of Japan showing damage after an Earthquake and Tsunami at the Sendai Port, Japan. (credit: DigitalGlobe)

The images and stories of the devastation caused by Japan’s massive earthquake is heart wrenching. We see countless examples of extraordinary acts of human courage and generosity as the local, national and world communities struggle to respond to this catastrophe. Japan, a nation that has long ensured that its buildings were built to withstand earthquakes and well drilled in emergency response, suffers under the weight of this unavoidable natural event. It is, of course, small comfort to know that the loss of human life could have been far greater if the quake had taken place somewhere less well prepared. The destruction is massive and the loss of life is beyond comprehension. We search for explanations for the unexplainable and for some rational structure within which we might understand this horror.

For those of us wedded to the idea of human development, we try to draw lessons from the catastrophes we manage to live through. One lesson we need to learn is that the impact of natural disasters will continue to grow. When I was a teenager back in the ancient 1960’s, there were about three billion people on Earth. In New York City this past Sunday March 13, 2011 at 11:15 AM , the World Population Clock estimated there were 6,878,805,516 people on the planet. Starting in 2007 the majority of those people lived in cities, and many of us live along coasts and in other places that put us in the pathway of probable natural disaster. If human history tells us anything, that will not change, and as our population grows to a probable peak of ten billion, it will only get worse. It is not that we will see more natural disasters; it is that our human population and built-up settlements are increasingly vulnerable to them.

What do we do? Part of what we need to do is actually what Japan has done: ensure that our buildings and infrastructure are built to be resilient and capable of surviving the disasters that we may someday experience. We must also develop and maintain the organizational capacity and equipment needed for rapid emergency response. In this time of government fiscal stress in the United States, we need to resist the tendency to disinvest in emergency capacity due to the low probability of utilization.

Along with the development of large industrial cities, we very quickly developed large urban fire departments. We didn’t ban the use of fire; we simply knew that crowded cities required professional fire fighters. Now that buildings have become more fire resistant, it doesn’t mean that we disband those departments, but adapt their missions to modern threats such as terrorism and toxic release response. Now that our crowded planet makes us all more vulnerable to disaster, we need a global response that resembles what cities did at the start of the industrial age.

We are experiencing a global need that requires a global response. We must build international disaster response organizational capacity that is predictable, well managed, competent and accessible to all nations suffering from disasters. When natural emergencies impact human populations several times a year, they should no longer be seen as non-routine events requiring non-routine response. It is time to create the equivalent of a global Fire Department and an international 911 phone number. Just as a governor in the United States can mobilize the National Guard for state level emergencies and can request assistance from the President if the state’s Guard is overwhelmed, presidents and prime ministers need to be able to call on a well trained World Guard to routinely respond to natural emergencies.

A second key lesson emerged a day after the Japanese earth quake as the complex and vulnerable technology at several nuclear power plants began to fail. Japan generates about a third of its electricity from nuclear power plants and cannot easily do without them. Despite the many safeguards built into the plants, we all learned that they could still explode, melt down and leak radiation into the environment. The lesson here is the need to wean ourselves off of vulnerable toxic technologies. The 20th century tendency was to construct massive centralized industrial facilities. These took advantage of economies of scale and made energy and many consumer items available at low cost to the broad public. The development of low cost information and communication technology has led to outsourcing and networks of suppliers and production processes and to smaller and more specialized modes of production. When we see the damage now done to these huge, capital intensive nuclear power plants, we begin to understand the potential for diseconomies of scale. In the case of power generation, we need to move toward smaller scale, decentralized and less toxic facilities. This holds the potential of making the power system more resilient and reduces the risk of catastrophic failure.

Of course hindsight is 20-20, and many of the lessons we might learn from this disaster, must be deferred while we all help with response and reconstruction. There will be time for reflection later, and without question more information must still be analyzed. Before the earthquake there had been a great deal of analysis in the media about the challenges of Japan’s stagnant economy and opportunity structure. A crisis like this could be seen as yet another setback or as a galvanizing force that facilitates national revival. Here in New York, many predicted that the catastrophe at the World Trade Center would negatively affect New York City’s future as a great world city. Instead that horrific event brought us together and demonstrated our ability to overcome adversity. Perhaps Japan will also find strength and unity as it emerges from the grief and horror of this overwhelming disaster.

Originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

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John Ross
12 years ago

Very good read. Almost a year later and i still hear and read about what happened in Japan. I believe it is something that Japanese people won’t forget.