It has now been over a week since the ‘double disaster’ earthquake-tsunami combination ravaged the northeastern region of Japan and the full scale of the tragedy remains as of yet unknown. As rescue crews and aid workers make their way to the affected region, increased media attention in North America is being turned to the ‘Fukushima Fifty’, a group of unknown workers struggling tirelessly to prevent a nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, about 80 km south of Sendai and 250 km north of Tokyo. As soon as the nuclear troubles began, media sources began making comparisons with previous disasters: would this be another Three Mile Island? Another Chernobyl? And panic began almost as quickly. In Japan, whose history with nuclear fallout now runs back almost seventy years, the level of concern was perhaps understandable, especially given the proximity of the reactor to large urban centres and the quick escalation of the situation in the early days. What is perhaps more curious, however, is the level of panic in North America.
On Canada’s west coast, in the province of British Columbia, residents in some communities began rushing out to pharmacies mere days after the earthquake in preparation for any potential drift of radiation across the Pacific Ocean. Within days, drugstores began selling out of potassium iodide, a compound believed to protect the thyroid from the effects of radiation, prompting the provincial government to remind citizens of the pills’ potentially harmful effects. Health officials released a second statement reminding residents that no health risks existed yet, nor were any likely to surface – any potential radiation from Japan would disperse to quantities too small to measure during the six-day trip across the ocean.
A few days later, the state government of Hawaii released a statement insisting that it was ‘open for business’, hoping to calm the fears of potential travelers. As many Japanese tourists began to cancel their scheduled holiday on the islands after the quake, the tourism industry took proactive measures to attract (or at least retain) its American crowd. Even Obama, who spent much of childhood growing up in Hawaii, insisted that any harmful radiation would dissipate before reaching the state, which lies about 6400 km from the damaged reactor.
The situation was the same in California, where officials suggested that Californians start preparing for the possibility of major earthquakes in their own state, which lies along the often-active San Andreas Fault, instead of worrying about the unlikely arrival of harmful radiation from Japan. The President again repeated the official line: “Whether it’s the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska or U.S. territories in the Pacific, we do not expect harmful levels of radiation. That’s the judgment of our Nuclear Regulatory Commission and many other experts.” Even if the disaster were to match the scale of Chernobyl, the radiation levels would likely not prove a health risk to Americans. Still, pharmacies continued to run out of potassium iodide.
German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has provided what might be understood as a ‘cultural history’ of radiation in his Terror From the Air (Semiotexte, 2002). The twentieth century has seen bridges built between human product design and environmental thought, a process which functions to ‘make atmospheres explicit’, as he puts it. As a result, he argues that we must constantly pay attention to the role that cultural creations and ideas play in shaping our environments; they are never simply ‘given’. Current concerns in North America might be used to illustrate his point. Take radiation. It has always existed as a natural phenomenon. Humanity has always, as it is today, been exposed to background radiation in daily life. For a long time, this was never much of an issue. The atmosphere was not explicit; radiation was there, but it did not consume any of our time or mental energy. Radiation becomes explicit when we come to realise and understand its potential to harm. Then, we suddenly become painfully aware of its presence. Sloterdijk frames his example using the Battle of Ypres in 1915, the first occasion on which German forces used gas warfare on a large scale. Here, air was made explicit using cultural manipulation – here, in the form of scientific knowledge – to create a microclimate of death used by a group of humans against another.
While Sloterdijk’s book is particularly concerned with military incidences of this ‘making explicit’ – mustard gas, Zyklon B, and even new technologies underdevelopment that seek to control the weather – I think that his argument can be taken further to understand the present situation. Science is in a constant process of making atmospheres explicit in its search for understanding, but in doing so it also adds to our list of anxieties. The overall effect, Sloterdijk argues, is one of alienation, which leaves us trying to recreate a lost sense of safety. Since Sloterdijk is not particularly optimistic about our abilities to effect such a recreation, it seems that government agencies may be fighting a losing battle in their attempt to reassure citizens. It only remains to see how the situation will play out, both in Japan and overseas, in the weeks to come.