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March 19, 2011

PTSD in Slo-Mo; the Pending Humanitarian Crisis

The tragedy now unfolding in Japan is literally without precedent; the size of the earthquake itself, together with the orientation and proximity of the culprit fault combined to produce a deadly tsunami that came ashore in less than a half hour, partially negating much of the benefit of the early warning system; but without it, the toll could have been far worse; or imagine if it had been after midnight rather than an afternoon.

Almost from the beginning attention had to be split between the search for survivors and the evolving nuclear threat; with less attention paid to the disaster’s impact on areas that weren’t affected directly. With each passing day however; the mounting disbelief occasioned by obvious denial from Japanese officials, has combined with the cautious uncertainty of overseas nuclear experts to send disturbing mixed signals. Are we not in the last days of petroleum? Were we not counting on nuclear energy to mitigate a painful transition? What about all the reactors in Japan and elsewhere built over the last 40 years? I remember that in the Sixties, so sensitive were the Japanese to nuclear energy, there were protests against the first planned visit by an American nuclear submarine. A more recent update shows how times have changed: annual sub visits, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, are probably still resented by some; but at least 1/3 of Japan's electricity was nuclear when the tsunami struck.

Many additional factors complicate the current situation. First, inclement weather: Northern Honshu and Hokkaido have a climate that’s similar to Michigan’s and those most affected by the tsunami have lost everything down to clothes, personal possessions, and even medications. Which raises another point: Japan’s rapidly changing demogaphics. As it's become more prosperous, Japan's population has aged significantly. When I was there in the Sixties, abortion was literally the cheapest form of birth control; that situation may have changed, but smaller families have clearly been the trend: Japan now has the highest percentage of elderly citizens of any nation. Nevertheless; because it was already overcrowded in the Thirties, it still has a big population, a situation made worse by its topography. As part of a volcanic chain, the Japanese islands typically have mountainous interiors surrounded by relatively narrow coastal plains upon which the population is concentrated.

In short, Japan's geography and topography, which have been affecting human culture and life style from prehistoric times, will influence the present disaster by making the delivery of relief supplies and ultimate relocation of survivors far more difficult than would be the case in Texas or Oklahoma.

Even more important may be the ultimate emotional toll that will be imposed on the psyche of a proud people being forced to simultaneously recover and bury their dead while cleaning up and rebuilding from within the wreckage of their once-proud economy.

Finally; what may well become the most crucial long-term effect of Japan's disaster will be how the rest of the world deals with the sudden impairment of its overall contribution to the densely interconnected global economy that has been evolving to serve our enormous, still-growing (but deeply divided) human population since two of its cities were obliterated in August 1945.

So far, I see no evidence that world "leadership," let alone our most vaunted institutions, have a clue as they struggle to deal with the panoply of problems that existed even before the tsunami struck.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at March 19, 2011 03:50 PM