There is no justice in the fact that one group -- the Japanese people -- has so disproportionately suffered the consequences of the sinful arrogance of those who have recklessly taken the atom and misused it for war and for profit.
On the face of it, there was nothing inherently wrong with the human race considering atomic energy as one possible source of energy among others. But that consideration should have taken place in the context of a deep religious and spiritual recognition that these forces are so enormous and their use such a powerful transformation of nature that they have to be approached with reverence, awe, and a sense that we are dealing with the sacred powers of the universe. We should have been willing to consider the possibility that splitting atoms may have potential consequences so beyond our capacity to rationally predict that atomic energy shouldn’t be tapped at all. And the choice should have been made by people filled with humility and a desire to benefit everyone on the planet not just in this generation but in millennia to come.
Unfortunately, that is not how science and technology work in the modern world. Scientific research is overwhelmingly driven by funding from governments that seek military advantage and by corporations that seek to maximize their profits. The notion of thinking in terms of the well-being of the entire planet and the entire human race is so far from the discourse of most governments and corporations that it invites cynical snickering and dismissals for being “unrealistic.”
Instead, we get a world in which atomic knowledge is reduced from its status as touching the sacred to a conversation about how to “use” atomic power and energy for the sake of a particular country or corporation. In short, atomic energy enters the arena of struggle of all against all -- the arena in which self-inflating nations and self-perpetuating, power-oriented corporations fight it out for dominance and profit margins.
In this context, the issue is not “Should we develop nuclear power?” or “Should we balance nuclear power with equal or more investment in wind and solar power?” Rather, the determining question is, “How can corporation x or corporation y maximize its profits best?” Questions about the well-being of the planet and the well-being of the human race are extrinsic to this consideration, and the human and planetary outcome of the investments are considered externalities. So if corporation x can make more money by investing in nuclear power than by developing wind or solar power, it will likely do so.
The Responsibility of the Top One Percent
Now up until here I’ve talked about this as a manifestation of “human” sinfulness. But actually, dear reader, you and I have not had a whole lot of say in these decisions. Corporations may respond to their stockholders, but in the case of many, many American (both Canadian and U.S.) corporations, most stocks are held or effectively controlled by the richest 1 percent of the American public, not by any “we” of which you and I are plausibly a part. And it is the decisions of those who serve these owners (and seek to please them with immediate and steadily increasing profits) that have shaped the technologies and societal constructions that now demand ever-increasing supplies of energy.
That’s why I was incensed to hear on NPR (or was it the Lehrer News Hour, or one of the other famous “listener-supported” but actually corporation-dependent centers of mass communication?) a discussion of Japan’s nuclear meltdown that referenced the “decision” of people living around the nuclear power plants to engage politically to insist that the nuclear plants be built in the areas that they are in. The reason, according to the commentators, was to provide money for “development.” What they left out of the picture were the crucial variables -- the realities of contemporary societies that have left billions of people increasingly dependent on the private investment decisions of a few thousand corporations and the thousands of corporate managers and investment experts who have always been oriented toward maximizing the old bottom line of money and power and so have constructed houses, apartment buildings, cities, and highways not with an eye to meeting the needs of the creation (both human and environmental) but with an eye toward encouraging people to spend endless amounts of money and consume endless amounts of goods.
Put all these factors together and you begin to understand how the Japanese government and related corporations came to build, with the guidance of General Electric, many nuclear plants very near to each other and in a known earthquake location. And each decision makes sense given the history of past decisions.
But what about the unpredictability and arbitrariness of nature? Shouldn’t the blame be put mostly on that, rather than on human beings? The notion of a radical separation between nature and humans can no longer be sustained after several hundred years in which humans have literally transformed the planet. That transformation could have been salutary had it been shaped by humility, awe, and wonder, as well as a sincere commitment to serving the well-being of the planet and all its life forms. Instead, the cumulative impact of decisions made to maximize profit for the few has dramatically contributed to, or accelerated the timing of, global warming and other transformations of the planet, its weather systems, and more.
And Of Course: Nuclear Weapons
Let us not forget that before the potential for human destructiveness was manifested in the profit-driven development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes, it was manifested in the atom bomb.
There is a considerable body of evidence that the one country that has ever waged nuclear war, the United States, didn’t have to do so. The argument that the United States would otherwise have had to be engaged in a land war in which a million American soldiers might have died can no longer hold up to historical scrutiny. A primary reason the United States opted for bombing Nagasaki and Hiroshima was to scare the Russians into dealing more cooperatively with U.S. leaders in the postwar period. Instead, the use of those weapons spurred Russia, and then China, and now several other countries, to become nuclear themselves. And every time it appears as if the United States is on the verge of significantly scaling down its own huge arsenal of these weapons, the “scaling down” is coupled with “modernization” that only increases the destructiveness and potential “usefulness” of these weapons in a future conflict.
The U.S. push to lead the world in nuclear weapons and its continued efforts to justify the development of its nuclear capacity are acts of endless stupidity and potential self-destructiveness. U.S. leaders urge the rest of the world not to develop nuclear capacity, as though the power of the nations that already have it gives us the moral right to set the conditions for who can and cannot develop nuclear capacity. Many of the people in the world whose countries do not have nuclear arms nevertheless believe that they have a right to them, given that there is no particular moral foundation -- other than the unacceptable “might makes right” doctrine -- under which those who already have them are allowed to hold on to them. It is only the arrogance of the powerful that has kept nuclear arms in the hands of a few hypocritical nations that develop their nuclear capacity even while lecturing others on the need for disarmament! It is only a matter of time before other countries will join what the media disarmingly and misleadingly calls “the nuclear club of nations.”
The Courage and Confidence We Need
The problem is the entire war- and profit-driven system. No individual legislator could be expected to change the system on her own. It would take people working together in cooperation -- a global social movement with a vision and plans for building a new society -- to truly transform it.
So it is not really appropriate to say it is the sin of arrogance that governs and shapes the global craziness that has led us to this present moment. More accurately, it is our collective inability to build a social movement to fight for a more rational and environmentally sustainable reality. And that inability flows more from our fear of each other, our surplus powerlessness (our inability to imagine ourselves as having the potential to fundamentally reshape our social and economic order), and our lack of the courage we need to forge out in new directions.
Put all that together and we get a world in which at any moment the decisions of the marketplace may lead us to national or global destruction. It is not the atom that is to blame, but the way we allowed others to shape a world in which the mysteries of creation are arrogantly appropriated to serve the greed of the few, amid the passivity of the many.
We at Tikkun are trying hard to change all this -- we’ve developed an important first step: the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ESRA). Congressman Dennis Kucinich has just introduced it as H. Res. 156. Now the ball is in your court. Will you join us by reading it and the Q&A that goes with it, endorsing it, and then helping us get support in your community? Start at spiritualprogressives.org/ESRA, and then if you are excited by it, click on from there…