Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Do you want a gun with that Iodine?

I woke up today (an hour early due to daylight savings time) to ongoing US anxiety about the threat of nuclear contamination from the Japanese power plants.   Even as experts say that the risk has decreased and the worst risk has passed, there is news that the US Navy has repositioned some of its ships near Sendai due to nuclear radiation detected 100km offshore.   The BBC News live coverage reports from Tokyo:
1844: Mikan in Tokyo writes: "There is a growing sense that the Japanese government is not telling us the true story. On one end, there is the Japanese media that plays down the nuclear drama and focuses on human drama, and at the other, the foreign media is up-playing the nuclear disaster. In my company I heard at least half the essential staff is being sent to Hong Kong, Singapore or even Sydney. I am preparing to leave Tokyo and/or Japan. So are many of my friends. There is a sense of deserting Tokyo as soon as possible."
So, its probably going to be fine.  Right?   We shouldn't over-react.  Still, many people I have spoken with have been wondering about disaster preparation.  Should we be doing something so we would be prepared? 

And prepared for what, exactly.

Modern disaster anxieties are not specific.  People seem to fear the breakdown of the urban fabric so well documented during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  At the same time as we're worrying about where our food comes from we are worrying about what we'd do if it stopped.  Stopped coming, that is. 

However much we like to eat organic, ethical, yummy, local food,  mass-produced gene-ripped soy-meat-goop is better than nothing.

Or, as a friend mentioned today.  "I have been thinking about buying a gun."  Later in the conversation she admitted she had contacted a local farm to ask about buying an "Armageddon Share" of produce to sustain the family in the event of a catastrophe.

I was interested to learn that although Japan is prone to earthquakes, a Reuters article reports that "some estimates suggest as few as 14 percent of property owners in the country have earthquake insurance".  I have considered adding Earthquake Insurance to our homeowners policy but it adds a lot - like an extra 40% to annual policy costs.  I can understand why people are reluctant to spend so much when there is no earthquake damage to their area in recent memory.

Most of us don't live the life of an insurance risk estimator.  Asteroids and earthquakes are equally costly to me if they are fatal and disasters only occur to me when they happen to someone else.   I don't think this has this really changed through human history.  What seems to be new in the social imagination is this concept of society breaking down. 

Most of us born after the wars haven't really experienced the kind of dislocation and scarcity from widespread damage.  As individuals, we are helpless, lacking even the market gardens or small-holdings of the almost-recent past.  At the same time, our [social] infrastructure is becoming so advanced and pervasive that the notion that we could be cut off from each other and the sources of food and information is almost unbelievable.

If we were cut off from food and money what would we do?

I guess that's where the gun comes in.

I read an anecdote from a resident of Tokyo about his reaction when the power and utilities were cut off due to earthquake damage.  He had a bit of food stored and managed to buy some more from a local supermarket (the staff wrote down the things sold so that they could record them in the absence of electronic systems) but he spent hours walking around Tokyo looking for a battery powered supply for his cell phone.  That was the only remaining form of contact available to him.  He kept switching it off and on hourly to preserve the battery.

Anyway, I have to go and indulge in my utilities right now - to electrically boil water, to make some manufactured hot chocolate for my toy dependent 4-year old who just made up the new word "DESPLOGONAUG" to describe his ultimately destructive monster-machine.

And those of us who live in the Desplogonaug of contemporary society and yet dread the implications of it being damaged or decaying must continue to ponder the question of what constitutes a reasonable response to disaster preparation and what is in the realm of a child's play.

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