Man vs. Nature in the Nuclear Age




By Jerome E. Roos

The triple tragedy that is unfolding in Japan has starkly revealed a major contradiction in man’s relationship to nature under the conditions of late modernity. Stumbling along in ‘collective blindness’, humanity continues to live at the mercy of risks that we will never fully understand.

The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan are at once a testament to and a tragedy of modernity. A shining testament to the ingenuity of the engineers of Tokyo’s quake-resistant skyscrapers and the heroism of the workers at the Fukushima power plant — but also a painful tragedy for those who took comfort in the reassuring statements of politicians and experts that nuclear power is safe and the risk of a nuclear accident minimal.


The problem, of course, is not that our calculations were wrong, or that the odds of disaster turned out to be higher than expected. The real problem is that we continue to rely singularly on complex mathematical risk assessments that are, at rock bottom, based on nothing more than quantitative, theoretical and historical models that by their very nature exclude the one great ‘unforeseen event’ in the future.


Since those incalculable outliers — or Black Swan events — are what we are really interested in, and since the models are by their very nature incapable of predicting them, the problem is not just that we are permanently at risk of a catastrophe, but that through our complex mathematical reason we have made ourselves believe that we are not!


Essentially, we have reasoned and calculated our way into the domination of nature, emphatically pretending that scientific knowledge and technological innovation have relegated the notion of risk to the realm of pre-history. But clearly, it is not the first time we have allowed ourselves to be so deluded. The ‘experts’ at Goldman Sachs, for example, made themselves (and the world) believe that the risk of a crisis in the US housing market was “one to twenty-five sigma.”


In his latest book, Whoops, John Lanchester revealed the sheer absurdity and arrogance these expert risk assessments by putting them in context: twenty sigma is “ten times the number of all the particles in the known universe; twenty-five sigma is the same but with the decimal point moved fifty-two places to the right. It’s equivalent to winning the UK national lottery twenty-one times in a row.”


As Nassim Taleb, the famous investor and best-selling author of Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan, so pointedly observed, the “non-computability” of these extreme outliers “is not compatible with scientific method.” The result is that “people develop a psychological bias and ‘collective blindness’ to them.” While Taleb’s theories surged in relevance and popularity in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, they can just as easily be extended to natural disasters and nuclear accidents.


This teaches us all — pro-nuclear experts and anti-nuclear activists alike — a crucial lesson. Fukushima should not be seen as a statistical aberration; a once-in-a-million-years event. Indeed, it is the very culmination of modernity’s development into a risk society, and a tragic manifestation of Murphy’s Law at the level of nuclear engineering. The Atomic Age itself, we should never forget, was seen by many modernists as the very pinnacle of scientific and technological progress — a Brave New World of cheap, clean and abundant energy.


To a great extent, this was true. Nuclear power fueled Japan’s economic take-off in the 1970s; without it, the country would have relied on expensive (and high-carbon) imports of fossil fuels. In quite a direct way, the ingenuity of the engineers who built Tokyo’s swaying skyscrapers rested upon the economic foundation of its nuclear project, and this is what set the impact of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami apart from the impacts of those in less developed countries, like Haiti and Indonesia.


Still, the resultant nuclear crisis reveals a major contradiction in man’s relationship to nature under the conditions of late modernity. At its core, the modern project to emancipate man from the vicissitudes of his natural environment will always be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, our knowledge and technology undoubtedly liberate us from the destructive forces of nature in daily life. On the other hand, when nature does manage to strike through our technological edifice, the destructive forces of nature are greatly amplified by the creative genius of humanity.


This is why the debate about man’s relationship to nature under conditions of late modernity should never be reduced to mere black-and-white, good or bad, arguments (as it regrettably still remains in debates between modernists and romanticists, or the pro-nuclear right and the environmentalist left). Rather, we would do well to take stock of Ulrich Beck’s famous analysis of the risk society and its implications for our relationship to nature in the wake of Fukushima:


since the middle [of the twentieth century] the social institutions of industrial . . .society have been confronted with the historically unprecedented possibility of the destruction through decision-making of life on this planet. This distinguishes our epoch not only from the early phase of the industrial revolution, but also from all other cultures and social forms, no matter how diverse and contradictory . . . If a fire breaks out, the fire brigade comes; if a traffic accident occurs, the insurance pays. This interplay between before and after, between the future and security in the here-and-now, because precautions have been taken even for the worst imaginable case, has been revoked in the age of nuclear, chemical and genetic technology. In their brilliant perfection, nuclear power plants have suspended the principle of insurance not only in the economic but in the medical, psychological, cultural, and religious sense.The residual risk society has become an uninsured society, with protection paradoxically diminishing as the danger grows.


Whether we are for or against nuclear power, everyone would do well to reassess the very way we assess risk in our late modern society. Lest we continue to stumble along in collective blindness, it is time for both parties to start speaking the truth about nuclear power: it is an amazing source of cheap, low-carbon energy — but it will always come at the price of an unforeseen catastrophe lurking around the corner. Let us pray that Fukushima won’t be that catastrophe.



Jérôme E. Roos is a Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute, a progressive think tank based in Oakland, California, and Editor of Breakthrough Europe. In addition, he is Co-Founder and President of Spearhead Action Group, a non-profit organization based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and Founder and Editor of Reflections on a Revolution.

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