Japan: from seismic faults to systemic faults

14 March 2011

The earthquake in Japan originating deep in the sea, with the huge tsunami that followed, is said to be one of the biggest in the country's long history of seismic events. The terrifying TV footage of floods of water wiping out entire towns in a matter of minutes speaks for itself. Nothing and no-one could possibly have withstood such colossal forces.

So far the Japanese authorities estimate the death toll at around 2,800, with an additional 9,500 or so individuals unaccounted for. Altogether direct casualties from the earthquake, but mostly from the tsunami, are predicted to reach 20-30,000.

Many more uncertainties remain as to the indirect victims of the disaster, and not just due to its impact on nuclear power plants, but also due to the brutal destabilisation of the Japanese economy caused by the ensuing frenzy of speculation.

What today's society could deliver...

Castastrophic as the direct casualty count may be, what is remarkable is that given the sheer scale of the forces involved, it was not a lot higher.

One only has to remember the earthquake which hit Haiti, in January 2010, which was only 1/50th of the force of this one, and did not cause a tsunami. Yet, up to 300,000 Haitians died as a result.

The reasons are obvious. In Haiti, most of the country's impoverished population lived in slums which collapsed after the first shock. Thereafter, people were left to fend for themselves, with only their bare hands to disentangle the survivors from under the rubble.

Whereas in Japan, the population had been taught in advance what to do. Because buildings and houses were built to the highest anti-seismic standards, few suffered from the earthquake itself - even if they suffered subsequently from the tsunami. As soon as the disaster struck, hundreds of thousands of emergency service personnel and a massive supply of rescue equipment were rushed to the affected regions.

If anything, what happened in Japan shows just how impressively a disaster, even on such a catastrophic scale, can be dealt with in one of the world's richest countries, just because it can afford to mobilise resources, both human and material, on a large scale and use the most modern equipment.

Indeed, the means exist in today's society to allow mankind to overcome, to a large extent, the drastic consequences of the worst "natural" disasters - but these means are only available to the minority of very rich countries.

... If profit was no longer in the way

However, other threats may be in store for the population and, possibly, people beyond Japan itself.

The nuclear power plant hit by the tsunami experienced a series of explosions, which may lead to an "unknown" risk of radiation contamination on an "unknown" scale. Unlike the earthquake and tsunami, however, this is nothing "natural": using nuclear energy is a human invention. The Japanese population itself, already paid dearly for the criminal misuse of this invention by the US leaders at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with up to 300,000 dead!

Not that mankind should dismiss such a powerful resource, but it should use it only in so far as it can control it. And like any other industrial activity, this is first of all a matter of social choice.

Who can be sure that every precaution was taken in building this power plant? Some experts say that it should not have been so close to a coast exposed to a seismic fault. Could it be that it was cheaper? Or that the company did not bother? Did the explosions result from other cost-cutting? No-one can tell, nor trust that this was not the case. Because, in this capitalist system, the safety of the many always comes after the profits of the few.

And this is not just true of the nuclear industry. The 10,000 plus victims of the Bhopal "disaster", in 1984, were killed by Union Carbide's profiteering. Just as Shell is responsible for the casualties of its oil leaks in the Niger Delta. In fact, every industry has its own profit-driven casualties, due to poor safety and mad working conditions.

And as if all this was not enough, Japan is now threatened with economic meltdown. Since Monday, the few hundred finance companies which control the world financial system - the same which caused the present crisis - have been betting on a fall in Japanese share prices. In Tokyo, the stock market is falling through the floor just when the population needs all the country's resources!

The conscious mobilisation and co-ordination of all available resources that will be made possible by freeing society of the parasitism of capitalism, will not avoid natural disasters. But it will be the only way to avoid man-made "disasters" and reduce considerably the impact of natural ones in the future.