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The Japanese Tragedy and the State of Nature

March 20, 2011

Many are blaming the misconduct of the Japanese government for their ineffective rescue and disorderly relief activities in this tragedy, and even for their hiding the truth of the radiation leakage to the general public.  I do not assume much responsibility of the government here, although which is not a scapegoat for sure, but that of the greed of people as a whole.  Let’s first take a look at what has happened to this country.

The nuclear power stations were designed by GE company in 1960s,  and it is estimated to expire by the end of this March. Since Tokyo Electric Power Company, which is fully responsible for these power stations, has not devised or even considered any alternative power stations. Obviously, without this tragedy, the stations will still be used, at least for civil purposes. Therefore, it is pretty safe to infer that even more devastating disasters will occur before long without this relatively controllable warning.  The incentives for that can be derived for the cost and other related considerations, but indeed, the greed of people. One can again condemn the government for its weak supervisory clout over some power companies or the like, but without these financial groups, how could these politicians be widely reported, strongly endorsed and finally elected? One thereby can hardly blame for the two reciprocal parts geared in the same machine for the common outcomes, which is the unduly pursuit of profits in this context. Simply put, if the power company has enhanced the diesel base of each major power station for additional 2 meters, it technically suffices to ward off tsunami attacks;  if it employs artificial robots in the salvage, the tragedy will not be so-called a tragedy.

As Rebecca Solnit claimed in her essay, “The Uses of Disaster”, that disasters would, to some extent, force people back to the state of nature, which, from her perspective, was actually a state of human corroboration. In this state, she rejoiced on human kindness to each other that would contribute to the consummation of civil society.  Her view of the state of nature was in some degree a refined Lockean version, in which Locke considered the state of nature was a state of equality and freedom and people were not prone to harm each other under the laws of nature. Unfortunately, she failed to or would unwillingly assume the bad aspects of the state of nature, which was not necessary to be the Hobbes’ version but pretty close to. In Hobbes’ state of nature, people were at war with each other. Admittedly, within a well-structured and full-fledged  society, the greed probably would not pull humans into a potential large-scale war, but the derived indifference towards others, specifically the weak of the same race observed in this tragedy is not a good sign for the well-being of all peoples. A true sovereign with wide root support, instead of an embodiment of different interest groups, is a potential candidate for resolving similar problems.

  1. Zack Orsini permalink
    March 20, 2011 4:01 PM


    Interesting post. I remember when my social justice teacher from high school told my classmates and me about how he thought that nuclear power is generally the most clean and safe form of energy that people have yet been able to produce, but the possibility of disaster (e.g. meltdown) makes nuclear power “not worth it” to even use. The major disaster in mind during this class (if I recall correctly) was the famous problem at Chernobyl. I remember learning about people being born (in the following generation) with grave deformities resulting from their parents’ exposure to radiation. While I do not know if I agreed with my teacher’s opinion that we should not use nuclear power at all, I think it is important to realize how horrendous the consequences can be if something does in fact go wrong.

    During crises such as these, it is important for the government to remain honest with the public and for people to cooperate with the well-being of all in mind. Let us hope that the Japanese confront this situation with faith in one another so that, (as you mentioned)as Solnit said, the “state of nature” may be a positive state of cooperation and trust between citizens.

    • kernelp permalink
      March 20, 2011 6:21 PM

      Thank you so much for commenting on my post and kind words, Zack. I wonder if I catch your main points that although nuclear power has its greater advantages compared to other types of energy in some dimensions, we should bear in mind of its uncontrollable negative consequences. I agree with you that the government should perform more overtly in providing the relevant information and the like, but we may not forget that the elected government is directly endorsed by its financial groups, not by its people, and in the Japanese context, every high-profile government official will automatically acquire a high-paid position in some major company after her retirement if she helps the company gains reasonable profits in her incumbency. Therefore, when issuing some orders, the government officials will probably consider more on personal calculations rather than their people, after several turns, the orders will become ambiguous and could not reach the staffs for action or be too late to make a salvage. That is why I think this Japanese tragedy is more close to Hobbes’ interpretation of the state of nature rather than other well-known social contractists’. For Chernobyl, I would like to discuss further with you on that before long if you wish.

  2. Anthony Sinishtaj permalink
    March 20, 2011 10:20 PM

    There is a lot of information in this post that I’m wondering about. I heard that the Japanese knew about the nuclear meltdown, and that the government advised the citizens to stay in their homes. I also don’t know how much the Japanese had to worry about the state of nature. The Japanese government seemed to react much quicker than we did in New Orleans. Therefore, I’m not sure the Japanese reacted Hobbesian or Lockean, because I feel that they were never in a state of nature, or at least not long enough so they would have to rely on themselves.

    • kernelp permalink
      March 21, 2011 12:35 AM

      I appreciate so much for your comments on my post, Anthony. I think you have a reasonable amount of relevant information with a good reflection. In fact, as many of my friends who are still living in that region told me, they had to rely totally on themselves, othewise they could not get any food for a single day, and what they exprienced were even worse than that which were described in the Hobbesian state of nature, although that did not last long. For the relief and other needs, the media could not cover that. When the government’s food allocations started, the effieciency became another problem. But what I discussed in my post was a relatively larger state of nature, which not only existed in this disaster or merely in Japan, but in almost every corner of the world. It might be less noticeable or even invisable, but it does exist, if you can think it over without rooted impacts from the media coverage and ideology and the like.

  3. AlexKasnetz... permalink
    March 21, 2011 6:27 PM

    I enjoyed reading your post. I believe that you could not have found a better way to explore Solnit’s views on the way we act when faced with disaster. From what I have read, the actual response in Japan today mirror a mix of Rousseau’s state of nature and Solnit’s observations of man’s resilience in the face of great adversity. Certainly those most damaged by the Tsunami have reverted to one of man’s first natural tendencies, that of self-preservation. Across the world, people are reverting to the other innate tendency of man: pity. But Japan as a whole seems to have taken the disaster with strength of will and composure. An article I was reading in The Economist a few days ago described admiration and even astonishment at the courageous stoicism being practiced by many Japanese citizens in the face of great catastrophe (apologies, I would have posted the link but it’s gone now unless you’re a subscriber). This leads to me to argue that the state of nature may in fact be different across societies. If catastrophe helps revert us back to the state of nature–and I believe it does–then I argue that a similar catastrophe in another country or culture would create different effects among the population. Perhaps we cannot simply say that man has one natural state, but that it varies along with all other human characteristics.

    • kernelp permalink
      March 22, 2011 2:36 PM

      I enjoyed reading your comments, too, Alex, and I recognize my limited ability in applying Solnit’s views in interpreting disasters. I agree with you that the state of nature has different effects on different peoples. As I responsed to my class peers in the previous posts, the government is mainly responsible for the special interest groups, not its people, at least in the Japanese context. I do appreciate your focus on the Japanese people in this disaster in terms of reviewing a bunch of news coverage or reports, although most of which are biased with their special interests. However, what you have read is probably not the case. I feel that the reporter (if not offensive) of Economist has not done adequate research, at least that of first-handed, but just pile up what he or she has experienced from the media or other sources to get it done, and it is absolutely not your false. If you are interested in what has really happened to those Japanese people, I could suggest you some of local sources if you can read Japanese. And the famous book “the Chrysanthemum and the Sword” might be a good candidate for you to understand the different facades of Japanese.

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