Japan’s technological limits — and ours

WASHINGTON — The disaster in Japan has taken on biblical proportions — an unfathomable three-fold catastrophe the likes of which has rarely been seen in recorded human history. Just as relief agencies struggled to cope with the twinned calamities of earthquake and tsunami, nuclear reactors started to malfunction, opening another front in the crisis.

The images are heart-rending and the scope of the tragedy nearly incomprehensible. I cannot imagine what it’s like to search, hope against hope, for loved ones missing since the earth shuddered and the sea rose up.

I have been struck not just by the scale of the human tragedy but also by the failures of essential technical systems set in place to minimize such disasters. In Haiti,

a wretchedly impoverished nation where neither government nor social services function well, it’s not so shocking that a 7.0 earthquake may have killed more than 300,000 people (by some estimates). But Japan, by contrast, is an industrialized nation awash in the glories of modern inventions. It was not supposed to encounter grievous destruction.

Living on an island situated at one edge of the Pacific “Ring of Fire” — a half-circle of ocean-bottom volcanoes and shifting tectonir plates — the Japanese have spent billions on warning systems, as well as drills to teach its citizens how to respond to alarms. But an earthquake that registered 9.0 — one of the most powerful ever recorded — set off a tsunami that quickly overwhelmed plans and drills. Those who lived on Japan’s stricken coast would have had no more than half an hour to outrun a massive wall of water, experts say.

The Japanese are by no means unusual in their faith in modern science and its wonders. Most of us who live in the industrialized West share a deeply-held, if rarely spoken, belief that technology can cure any disease, ward off any catastrophe or produce limitless bounty for our enjoyment.

That was evident last year after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, killing 11 crew members and spewing millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Many Americans expected BP or the U.S. Navy to shut down the well. Surely, they could just get a couple of Navy Seals to go down there and turn off the spigot?

The disbelief and impatience that accompanied efforts to plug the leak — after a couple of interventions failed, it was finally capped three months later — showed a nation in thrall to its technological wizardry. And we remain so. We are little more persuaded of the dangers of deep-water drilling than we were before the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Our notions of war and national defense are also heavily influenced by assumptions of technological mastery. If ours is the most powerful military on the planet, with the biggest guns, the fastest planes and the coolest laser-guided missiles, shouldn’t we smash our enemies to smithereens?

Indeed, those assumptions, made by many who should know better, seem to underlie the current clamor in Congress for the U.S. to intervene in Libya. Among others, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), both veterans of an earlier era of warfare, have prodded the Obama administration to impose a no-fly zone to prevent Muammar Gaddafi  from slaughtering his own people.

But as many Pentagon experts have pointed out, there is no risk-free way to intervene, even with the best, the biggest, the coolest military hardware. Besides, there are political implications to consider that do not give way to aerial bombardments.

Nor does Mother Nature yield to our assumptions about taming the winds and waves. We will certainly achieve more with our technology, exploring unchartered territory and conquering new frontiers. But our scientific advances will not fundamentally change humankind or neuter Mother Nature.

Some things are simply beyond our reach.

260 comments Add your comment

Herman Cain

March 16th, 2011
11:00 am

Welcome back CT.

Zzz

March 16th, 2011
11:03 am

WOW…Not 1 reference to the “Evil” Republicans !

hobby

March 16th, 2011
11:09 am

it’s Bush’s fault

Kamchak

March 16th, 2011
11:13 am

Most of us who live in the industrialized West share a deeply-held, if rarely spoken, belief that technology can cure any disease, ward off any catastrophe or produce limitless bounty for our enjoyment.

Not to worry.

Soon, the iphone will have an app for that.

Gator Joe

March 16th, 2011
11:14 am

I’ll agree to continued use of nuclear power when it is made 100% safe, both in terms of operation and the waste generated. How tragic the dire warnings of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and now Japan will go unheeded. And how unfortunate the cleaner and safer energy sources, such as solar and wind, will not have the necessary resources allocated to make them viable. Of course those industries don’t have the lobbying resources of oil, coal, and nuclear. Too bad for humanity.

Nuker

March 16th, 2011
11:25 am

Gator Joe

You will agree to it’s use?

I suppose that the millions of tons of particulate matter that is belched into the sky from coal burners, the destruction of millions of acres of our lands for hydro and the high power lines that transmit electricity are all 100% safe.

I’m right there with you for the advancement of solar and wind, but the windmill on my Yugo keeps banging into overpasses.

arnold

March 16th, 2011
11:25 am

I’ve been led to believe solar power is a viable alternative. In terms of both cost and efficiency. The cost of solar has come down in the last ten years. Maybe we should spend more resources looking to solar rather than lining the pockets of large energy corporations wanting to use nuclear, coal or whatever.

Nuker

March 16th, 2011
11:33 am

arnold

There is a large store a Pleasent Hill called Fry’s. It’s like a Radioshake on steriods. They have both solar panels and small windmills for sale.

Knock yourself out.

Addicted to Golf

March 16th, 2011
11:33 am

I say we all go golfing and forget about it just like the President. I really like his attitude of “strategic disengagement”. Libya civil war? Go golfing! Japan Triple doom with quake, tsunami and nuclear nightmare? Go golfing and talk about women’s empowerment on your weekly radio address! National deficit and budget issues? Work on your NCAA Tournament brackets and go on ESPN! Better bring your cell phone get up on the hoops action this weekend while on the greens!

Great leadership Mr. President!

Way to go Mr. President

BlahBlahBlah

March 16th, 2011
11:37 am

Sorry Gator Joe, no method is 100% safe. Using your logic we should all drive armored tanks to work because otherwise we might be killed in an accident. After all, even the best car isn’t 100% safe.

arnold

March 16th, 2011
11:38 am

“Nuker

March 16th, 2011
11:33 am

arnold

There is a large store a Pleasent Hill called Fry’s. It’s like a Radioshake on steriods. They have both solar panels and small windmills for sale.

Knock yourself out.”

Thanks Nuker. You have such compelling reasoned opinions. Very helpful.

BlahBlahBlah

March 16th, 2011
11:38 am

Solar and wind are both horribly inefficient.

carlosgvv

March 16th, 2011
11:47 am

Barring some fantastic global event, technology is here to stay. While it’s true “some things are simply beyond our reach”, many things that are factual today were only out of reach dreams years ago. Science and technology will march on, though it’s probably true we will never reach perfection. So, it’s not an all or nothing thing, that is, either our technology is perfect or it’s nothing.

bman

March 16th, 2011
12:09 pm

To be honest (if I must)…

When you touch on a subject that’s non-political, it’s always a good read. Always. Have you been on vacation, or did you take some time to understand that our current President would be better as some guy on a late nite infomercial running across the stage with the “YES WE CAN” & hope stuff than he is at being President Of the U.S.?

By the way, welcome back!

Libby

March 16th, 2011
12:15 pm

It certainly is nice to watch a first world country – even after such disasters. I sure miss mine.

Call it like it is

March 16th, 2011
12:23 pm

What I find interesting and I’m sure the media want touch it, but how the citizens of Japan reacted to the threat of the tsunami and what they are doing to clean up versus the citizens of New Orleans and the population of Haiti. In Japan they received a threat, and those that could, tried to get out of danger, New Orleans not so much. In the aftermath the Japanese have come together, work together to try and get their county back together. No chanting that the Government failed them, no blame. I mean within days they had already had many of their streets clean and they were passable. That country will be back on track in months, and there are still areas in New Orleans that are junk piles years after Katrina hit. In regards to Haiti no comment.
Funny how different people react to different situtations. One group takes care of business, the other waits for Uncle Sam to come take care of them.

Aquagirl

March 16th, 2011
12:23 pm

Nice to have you back, CT, your conservative fans were withering on the vine with only Jay to poke at ‘em.

In any event, much of the populace is too scientifically illiterate to understand even the basics of technology. The Republican party trashes science, it’s acceptable for our political leaders to ignore science. Ironically this is what leads to the near-magical belief that it should solve anything instantly, and if it doesn’t it’s all a government conspiracy or plot to advance an agenda. Obama didn’t instantly sweep up the gulf spill? He’s trying to drive up gas prices. Autism rates on the rise? It’s those pharma vaccines. Evolution, anthropogenic climate change….the list goes on and on.

Mary Elizabeth

March 16th, 2011
12:38 pm

“But our scientific advances will not fundamentally change humankind or neuter Mother Nature.
Some things are simply beyond our reach.”
——————————————————————————————————

Welcome back, Ms. Tucker. You were missed.

Yes, scientific advances will not fundamentally change humankind, but the soul of humankind, unlike Mother Nature, is capable of evolving and reaching higher consciousness.

For inspiration to keep trying to raise human consciousness – the lyrics of the first and last lines from the song, “The Impossible Dream” from the play, “Man of La Mancha”:

“To dream the impossible dream”. . . “To reach the unreachable star.”

Nuker

March 16th, 2011
12:45 pm

Arnold

I was serious. As long as you continue to suck power from Southern Company, you are part of the problem. If you are really that concerned about how our electricity is generated, generate your own power. At this point in time, solar is not viable in Georgia. We don’t have a sustained sunny weather. We do however have a lot of wind, or at least enough to keep a windmill spinning and the ones at Frys put out quite a bit of power.

I live in a condo, so I can’t, but if I still owned my house, I would be doing exactly that. .

DebbieDoRight

March 16th, 2011
12:49 pm

Call it – Just couldn’t stop yourself from playing the “I hate anything black” card could you? Just couldn’t hold back from using the Haiti (a poor impoverished country) and Japan (a highly technical and advanced nation) situational theories could you? All that was missing from your post was a dig at Obama for being……I don’t know…..alive, I guess.

While you applaud Japan for working together, ALL of Japan working together, why don’t you try working to unite this country instead of bringing out your old tired rhetoric and hate?

It’s a dang shame that after all these years of living, you still are as ignorant now as you were on the day of your birth. Sad. But not remarkable.

Schrodinger's cat

March 16th, 2011
12:49 pm

“But our scientific advances will not fundamentally change humankind or neuter Mother Nature.
Some things are simply beyond our reach.”

….but, but, I thought it was these advances that were hammering Mother Nature into submission via Global Warming….so which is it?
Mankind can/will destroy life as we know it or is it beyond our reach to have any influence over Mother Nature??

Call it like it is

March 16th, 2011
12:53 pm

Will technology ever conquer mother nature, NO! All we can do it try and live with her. Did technology or could technology have stopped this, NO. But I wonder how many more Japanese would have died had it not been for the national warning to all the citizens of Japan, via computer, cell phone, radio and TV that the Tsunami was coming? With in seconds of the earth quake the notice went out. Beacons in the ocean let Japan know immediately where the wave was coming from, how big and where it was going. Take technology out of this and the death toll would have been 100 times higher.

Again Japan had mintues to react and they did, Citizens of New Orleans had “days” to react and they didnt. Different worlds.

Herman Cain

March 16th, 2011
12:53 pm

gee debbiedonothing, truth hurts huh? Not one place in Call It’s post did he mention black, you just assumed. Race bait much? Oh well, I guess if the Jordan fits………………….

Pablo

March 16th, 2011
12:54 pm

Good column, Cynthia. I think that as a race, humans have done things that are astounding in their advancement and sophistication; yet we fall prey to our delusion of control. Once we truly understand that the technology we create is only as good as the purpose it serves, and that it still may not be enough to face the kind of catastrophe that can befall us at any time, we will be better prepared to deal with whatever may come.

Chris Matthews

March 16th, 2011
12:55 pm

Obama is too busy playing golf or filling out his basketball bracketts than to have to worry about the fates of Libya freedom fighters! He won’t take a leadership role! Doesn’t have the guts!

DebbieDoRight

March 16th, 2011
12:55 pm

CT: If ours is the most powerful military on the planet, with the biggest guns, the fastest planes and the coolest laser-guided missiles, shouldn’t we smash our enemies to smithereens? Indeed, those assumptions, made by many who should know better, seem to underlie the current clamor in Congress for the U.S. to intervene in Libya. Among others, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), both veterans of an earlier era of warfare, have prodded the Obama administration to impose a no-fly zone to prevent Muammar Gaddafi from slaughtering his own people.

I think it basically has absolutely nothing to do with saving Libya’s people from Gaddafi; but more to do with saving Libya’s OIL for the US. If the US were so gung ho about becoming the World’s police then we would’ve been front and center when Rwanda erupted in genocide a few years back.

Kamchak

March 16th, 2011
12:56 pm

…truth hurts huh?

This crap again? Geez.

Splinters from pressure treated wood hurt.

The truth?

No.

DblCheeburger

March 16th, 2011
12:57 pm

“…have prodded the Obama administration to impose a no-fly zone to prevent Muammar Gaddafi…”

Always learnin somethin new from Miss Cynthia’s collums. I always thot a “no-fly zone” was a seating area in McDonalds.

DebbieDoRight

March 16th, 2011
1:00 pm

Well Hi HermanCain!!! Saw your post to me on another blog, did you see my response? It was CLASSIC!! Oh and BTW I spelled out some words for you phoneticaly so that you could understand them better. Don’t thank me. I’d do the same for any HermanCain; that’s just how I am.

DebbieDoRight

March 16th, 2011
1:03 pm

Obama is too busy playing golf or filling out his basketball bracketts than to have to worry about the fates of Libya freedom fighters!

Libya’s Freedom Fighters!!! Iran’s Freedom Fighters!!! Egypt’s Freedom Fighters!!! Wow, if we would’ve listened to some of the people on the “right” we could’ve been involved in 3 extra wars this year alone!!! Imagine what Haliburton stock could’ve been like!!!

David Granger

March 16th, 2011
1:03 pm

Some good points, Cynthia…but let me point out that the entire nation of Japan is just one big tectonic fault. They don’t have a single spot that ISN’T either right on a fault line, or very close to it. In this country, we have many places that are geologically safe. Problem is, in our past…when nuclear energy plants were being proposed and built…the politicians got into the mix, and everybody wanted those tax dollars spent in THEIR districts. So we ended up with nuclear power plants situated right on top of the San Andreas’ Fault in California, for example.

Call it like it is

March 16th, 2011
1:05 pm

Debbie you assume much and know nothing. I mention nothing about race, nothing about politics, nothing about Obama. If you read my post and brought these issues out yourself, it would appear you are the one that has pent up frustrations to which you need to work out.

I can only assume some white person was mean to you at one time or another, and you cant let it go.

Within days I was in New Orleans helping out friends and family, I dare say you were not. I saw people who helped themselves and those who didnt. The majority didnt. I speak from which I saw in person and by the media. My co-woker is from Haiti and I could speak for him and what he saw while over there, but of course you have already made up your mind on my post and it would fall on deaf ears.

Hopefully you will find peace one day with the other races.

Herman Cain

March 16th, 2011
1:10 pm

littledebbiesnackcake, yeah we saw you run from the other blog screaming. As far as spelling things out for me, thanks but I have passed beyond ebonics in my life, but you are being a little racist by talking down to me. Oh yeah, dimwits can’t be racist only republicans, I keep forgetting that.
hey kamcrap, good sticking up for debbie but would you mind addressing Call It’s post and letting those of us who need things spelled out for us, where he mentioned blacks?

ck hall

March 16th, 2011
1:13 pm

Where have you been? I guess you and Obama have been busy picking your NCAA Basketball brackets!

Aquagirl

March 16th, 2011
1:14 pm

Yep, things are back to normal around here.

Hope and Change

March 16th, 2011
1:20 pm

I say we just ignore it like our President and take the family to Rio for Spring Break. The President is going to make some grand speech in Rio and enlighten us with his intellect. I wonder if he will be able to make it without his teleprompters or as Walter Mondale calls them, “Idiot Boards”. I wonder how much his little trip with the family will cost us with logistics and security. I wonder if he knows we are having a little difficulty with the budget and deficit. Plus, Japan and the Middle East are in crisis. It must be nice to be so disengaged and live in a bubble.

Call it like it is

March 16th, 2011
1:23 pm

“if we would’ve listened to some of the people on the “right” we could’ve been involved in 3 extra wars”

JOHN KERRY, who is among Mr. Obama’s closest allies, warn of repeating mistakes made in Iraqi Kurdistan, Rwanda, and Bosnia and Herzegovina by failing to step in and halt a slaughter,” Shanker and Sanger report. Kerry has advocated “cratering” Libya’s airfields.

Yeah, got to watch out for all of those guys on the right now, don’t we?
This would be the part, where you insert your foot into your mouth.

DebbieDoRight

March 16th, 2011
1:28 pm

Call It – Do you need a hug? Did you get brutally forced to submit to a black man at sometime in your life? Were you viciously beaten up every day by black kids in grade school? Did your girl leave you for a better looking, better built, black guy? Do you have p##nis envy? Do you secretly pretend to be MJ or Tiger when no one is looking? Do you know all the words to Season 1 of “Good Times”? Why all the hateful comments about blacks? Would you like for me to help you tweet about it?

HermanCain – It’s always good to know that you secretly wish to be an affluent, rich, black guy who has the brain of a conSER-a-Tron and the common sense of a Newt [Gingrich]. It just makes the world a better place knowing that. You’ve given me my faith back in humanity. Thank you.

DebbieDoRight

March 16th, 2011
1:30 pm

Oh yeah, dimwits can’t be racist only republicans

Sigh………a dimwit usually IS a republican….

I keep forgetting that.

I know. Bless your heart.

Dan

March 16th, 2011
1:34 pm

While clearly this disaster, was a brutally clear example of the might of mother nature and how really insignifcant we are in comparison. The comparison of Japan to Haiti as proof that we rely too much on technology is quite silly. On the contrary it is proof that, technology can and does greatly increase our security even in the face of overwhelming natural catastrophes. Haiti had 300k deaths, Japan hit with a far larger quake and the ensuing tsunami. with a far more densely populated area. Had far less human casualties. The current estimate is 10K a horrendous to be sure but even if that doubles, it will be 6% of Haitis loss. I would say the comparison proves without a doubt that while technology cannot save us from everything, it does indeed provide a large measure of security. Haiti lost 3% of its population. Japan even at 20K is .016%. Bravo for technology

DebbieDoRight

March 16th, 2011
1:38 pm

Yeah, got to watch out for all of those guys on the right now, don’t we? This would be the part, where you insert your foot into your mouth

You can name ONE Democrat, where I can name at least TEN republicans. So, since the ratio would be 10:1 I can say, assertively. that YES more people on the right are pushing for military intervention (war) than the people on the left.

That’s call RATIO and it’s part of MATH-A-MAT-TICS!!! (spelled phonetically just for you!!)

Herman Cain

March 16th, 2011
1:39 pm

debbiedolittle, that was you on the news screaming Show Me The Money wasn’t it? I can hear your sweet little voice now. Sorry that you have such a problem with a brother having a mind of his own and making it on his own, I’ve got news for you sweetie, power to the people went out when afro’s did, some of us grew up and realized we could stand alone and not have to be part of a crowd. It is much more lucrative that way, but worry not, I’m still paying those taxes so that you will receive your check and ebt card every month.

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have a scheme for you......

March 16th, 2011
1:41 pm

CT…….OMG you forgot your introductory line to your story today…..Where is “The earthquake that ripped through Japan was all George W. Bush’s fault?” You always blame all the ills of the world on the former President…….so did you just have a brain fart and forget this time?

Atleast Preseident Obamamama has a plan for Japan and Lybia………..wait I’m trying to think of it…….wait……its coming……..nope nothing there. Can’t seem to recall Obamamas plan for the major issues of our day.

DebbieDoRight

March 16th, 2011
1:43 pm

HermanCain, now i KNOW you’re not black!!! Afros are back IN!!! Oh and BTW HermanCain you aren’t my brother. My brother(s) are intelligent. (spelled phonetically it’s EN-tell-EE-jent).

Kamchak

March 16th, 2011
1:51 pm

hey kamcrap, good sticking up for debbie but would you mind addressing Call It’s post and letting those of us who need things spelled out for us, where he mentioned blacks?

Not my concern, sport.

I’m merely addressing the puerile “truth hurts” comment.

Herman Cain

March 16th, 2011
1:51 pm

littledebbie, Afro’s may be back but my hair fell out quite a few years ago. At least you are good for a chuckle and sometimes a full belly laugh.

0311/0317 -1811/1801

March 16th, 2011
2:08 pm

Cynthia:

And several journalists wrote a good editorial the other day asking why there had been “zero” reports of looting ! “0″ !

I wonder why?

Google: Japan no looting and you’ll find several editorials.

Truth Squad

March 16th, 2011
2:09 pm

Now that CT has returned Obama Derangement Syndrome (OBS) reigns supreme again!

President Obama has been willing to meet the nuclear industry half-way so I don’t know the OBS on this issue is curious. In the end, we aren’t going to drill our way, or ride nuclear power to energy independence.

I would also point out that the biggest lesson (and perhaps a subject for a future blog entry) is yet to come. The tax payers are on the hook for almost all of the clean up from these ruined plants. We should also think about how U.S. plants are built with the assumption that they will never go more than 4 hours without backup power. The Japanese plants assumed an 8 hour cushion.

There is a reason why insurance companies will only write policies up to about $1.5 billion on these things. We the tax payers are on the hook for the rest. Interesting that we don’t hear much about that from those who regularly decry nanny-state policies.

Ragnar Danneskjöld

March 16th, 2011
2:14 pm

Welcome back Ms. Tucker, and good afternoon all. I am comfortable with modern technology, and with my acceptance of man’s limitations – those are not irreconcilable positions.

Similarly, I think we all agree that US might is sufficient to prevent a holocaust in Libya. I think we all agree that two military veterans in the Senate – of different parties – believe the US should intervene to prevent a man-made catastrophe in Libya that will approximate the unavoidable carnage in Japan. I don’t know why Chauncey dithers when truly evil nations, such as Iran and Libya, slaughter those who would redirect their nations – I just know he does.

Ragnar Danneskjöld

March 16th, 2011
2:15 pm

It suddenly hit me why Chauncey dithers – “hope and change” are dead.