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Catastrophes and common sense

The nuclear crisis in Japan exposes the cost of idolizing the experts

By Carolyn Pogue

I would have liked to write about how spectacular it was to be at the Calgary Peace Prize dinner that honoured Dr. Vandana  Shiva. I wanted to report the words of this renowned physicist, philosopher, environmental activist and author who stands for common sense. I had planned to report what happened with the sold-out crowd at the University of Calgary and the 250 who came to dine with her. But Japan’s earthquake has stopped me cold.

That quake rattles me awake at in the middle of the night. The unfathomable devastation is one thing. Lives lost and ruined and the fear of more aftershocks are unimaginable. I am also haunted by the human arrogance of building nuclear reactors in a region known to be prone to earthquakes and tsunamis.

When I was a young mother in Yellowknife, NWT, the government was considering putting little nuclear reactors around the territory so we wouldn’t have to rely on diesel fuel for power. (A few decades earlier, power had been generated in the Mackenzie Valley using windmills, but we’d “progressed.”)

I was worried about nuclear energy. I didn’t trust it, wondered why people would consider it when accidents were a possibility, when no one knew what to do with the waste. Mining the uranium to power the reactors was dangerous too. (This was around the time that I learned that the uranium used for the first nuclear bombs had come from Great Bear Lake, NWT. I learned later that when Dene discovered this, they travelled to Japan to apologize. Can you imagine?)

I worked up my courage and phoned, telling a government official that I was not in favour of nuclear energy until we had more answers to the “what if’s.” His stony silence exploded as he condescendingly told me that I was bothering him, that I should stay in the kitchen, and to leave this kind of thing to the experts.

I know it is not the same thing; the reactors were different and the NWT isn’t on the Rim of Fire. But what comes to me in the darkness of these Lenten nights is the image of another mother who lives near Onahama, Japan. Maybe she is the daughter of Aiko and  Hiroshi, survivors of the bomb at Nagasaki. Maybe she has put her daughter Kumiko down for a nap and is now on the phone, asking a government official to rethink building that nuclear power plant. “What about earthquakes?” she asks. “How safe is it?” She’s told to leave all that to the experts.

If one good thing comes of this dreadful catastrophe, I hope that it is that we learn, finally, that people who care deeply about the future ARE the experts. Is it common sense to put money ahead of the future? Is it common sense to pretend that Mother Earth can be tamed or broken or bent to our will?

The world craves energy to fuel an expanding economy without limit, but Mother Earth has limits.

May peace — and common sense — prevail.
Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a longtime Observer contributor. New posts of The Pogue Blog will appear on the first and third Thursday of the month. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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