It’s so difficult to grasp the enormity of what has happened, and is happening, in Japan.
As if an earthquake and subsequent tsunami weren’t enough, the Japanese government must also deal with the possibility of nuclear meltdown – not once, but several times! This is the first time the words “perfect storm” have occurred to me. But there can be no doubt that events in Japan epitomize cataclysmic perfection.
No place for a nuclear reactor
Nuclear reactors responsible for thirty percent of Japan’s electricity are at or near a state of inoperability. Rolling blackouts have been instituted in Tokyo and other big cities. Yet ironically, that may prove somewhat unnecessary.
Because so many homes no longer exist, they don’t require heating. People are living in shelters, are purposely conserving, and there’s often no food to cook, cutting energy needs drastically.
But there are other issues that make this an energy storm and a humanitarian issue.
Japan imports most of its food; this fact, combined with “just-in-time” supply chains, mean the Japanese have few of life’s necessities on hand to require storage. Since they lack the large amount of space essential for long-term storage, this is usually a good thing. In the current crisis, however, it’s not at all advantageous. And that should remind us of our own questionable practice of having only three days’ worth of food on hand – the food that’s for sale in grocery stores! Transitioners have been saying for a while that this is a practice that requires re-examination.
Road blocks to recovery
Even the food supplied by donor nations must be distributed. While helicopters are available for disaster relief, and tanks might be highly useful if mountains of refuse need to be climbed in order to reach outlying areas, gasoline is in very short supply.
Journalists have learned this in attempting to reach Sendai — the city nearest the epicenter of the quake, and the most severely damaged — from Tokyo, where international flights are landing. There’s not even enough gas available to complete the relatively short trip.
But Japan doesn’t need journalists. Japan needs food. The shortage of fuel simply cannot bode well for the timely distribution of food.
Prior to the catastrophic events of March 11, Japan was poised to assume global leadership in the production of electric cars. The geographically small, overpopulated nation is perfectly suited to the advantages afforded by all-electric transportation.
Japan’s earlier manifestation, the bullet train, set the standard for swift, overland travel. Now, in the light of recent events, this worthy goal will have to be set aside for the more immediate task of rebuilding the northeastern quadrant of Japan. Yet in a downturn, the fuel cost necessary could well be prohibitive, judging by what we’re seeing at the gas pump.
Follow the carbon-free road
Clearly both Japan’s present and future are dangerously dependent upon the availability of fossil fuels. Without gasoline to power the vehicles needed for food distribution, people will need to go to the food rather than it coming to them. Whether or not this will be possible is unknown. Where a reliable supply of energy to enable daily life will originate is also unknown.
Now might be an excellent time for the Japanese to replace nuclear reactors with small, localized, renewable sources of energy. In the rebuilding phase, Japan could be a model of distributed solar and micro wind power, along with further implementing rail a few miles inland from the coast.
As life resumes a semblance of normalcy, as Japan begins to rebuild, the price of oil will have a profound effect upon the degree to which the “new” Japan resembles the “old,” pre-tsunami Japan.
Modern building construction is one of the most energy-intensive activities human beings undertake. This golden opportunity to disengage from bankrupt ways of living and doing business could be all the invitation the Japanese require to set a carbon-free standard for the rest of the world. This tiny nation would be viewed as a harbinger of the post-carbon life that awaits us all. If they can overcome their present peril and build for a new tomorrow sustainably, then so can we all.
There can be silver linings, if we look for them.
–Vicki Lipski, Transition Voice Magazine
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