Burned by Water

The northeast coast of Japan was shaken by another earthquake today – 7.4 on the Richter scale this time. In Washington, Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) is arguing with bureaucrats at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) about whether fuel in one of Fukushima’s reactors has breached the containment vessel. Just another day in the 21st century, I suppose.

I know, rationally, the world doesn’t work like this, but in an odd sense, I’m looking forward to the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. The irrational part of my brain thinks, “Maybe we’ll wake on September 12th and things will stop being so strange, that this decade of global chaos will end.”

This train of thought started last week, when I realized I was startled about not being startled. I was reading about the workers who were hospitalized after standing in highly irradiated water. They received radiation burns on their legs.

Interesting, but no big deal, right? “Burned by water,” however, just lodged in my head and I found myself muttering it over and over. It slowly surfaced in my brain that what was once absurd is now commonplace.

Consider: we have three wars running simultaneously. (Two and a half, minimum, depending on how picky you wanna get.) There’s no draft; most of us plod along never thinking about it. And plod we do, three years into an economic crisis and no relief in sight. Yesterday, Portugal became the third Eurozone nation to seek a bailout. Yawn. Shrug. Whatever.

Nine years ago in this space, I wondered if perchance I hadn’t developed schizophrenia and could no longer distinguish reality from fantasy. How else, I wondered, could Mark Floegel of 2002 explain his life to Mark Floegel of 1982?

That was when we only had one war. That was before a major American city was washed away and we decided to rebuild it – even though it’s below sea level and even though we haven’t done a thing to stop ocean-raising climate change.

That was before American banks trashed the global economy and everyone understood how the bankers did it and we did nothing about it, except bail out the bankers and let tens of thousands of Americans lose their homes. That was before we dumped two hundred million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and decided to just say it was all OK rather than doing anything about the hazards of offshore drilling. Did you hear the Cubans are opening their portion of the gulf to drilling? They say it’s OK, they won’t make the mistakes we did. Just like our nuclear plants can’t fail the same way Japanese ones do. Except the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (unofficially) says they can. (Officially, they tell us not to worry.)

Economist Joseph Stiglitz, writing in the UK Guardian, sees a common thread in all this: detachment. The people who benefit from – and decide on – the senseless ways in which we run the world, energy executives, bankers, politicians, are detached from the consequences of their decisions.

These oligarchs send out the bureaucrats to explain to us (with that “you’re too stupid to understand” tone) that the risk of anything going wrong is vanishingly small. (They haven’t seen the inventory in the paragraphs above.)

Here’s something to remember: risk is not impact. If there’s a mosquito in your bedroom, it’s annoying, but you’ll stay in bed and try to sleep, knowing you might get bitten. If you know that mosquito will give you a fatal disease, you’ll pull the sheet over your head and run out of the room. The risk of being bitten is the same, but your appreciation of the impact is what determines your behavior.

© Mark Floegel, 2011

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