Monday, March 14, 2011

Global Legos

AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye
Over the weekend I attended a lovely gathering of folks dedicated to globalizing our campus. Just the day before, I worked with colleagues helping to plan an international trip, trying to make sure students get a clear sense of their possible leadership roles in an increasingly connected world. Of course my thoughts could never stray from the images and sounds pouring in from Japan. The 9.0 quake threw another sad but essential dimension of our global conflation into sharp relief: nothing more than a flat screen monitor separates us from the pain of others.

When the initial reports began streaming in Thursday night I could hardly sleep. The quake was bad enough, but the subsequent tsunami was worse, wrecking a broad swath of northern Japan and racing toward Hawaii and western North America with the speed of a jet plane. It was about 2 in the morning when newscasters were reading the estimates of impact, just hours away. Eventually I settled into nervous slumber - not expecting waves to crash into my house, of course - but rattled with the anxiety that more bad news was on the way.

I stayed home that Friday (no meetings "over the hill," thank goodness) and I'm glad I did. Pals described an epic traffic jam on Highway 17, a soul-sucking slog exacerbated by gawkers who gathered at the summit to watch the waves roll in. Hawaii was generally spared, but the ports of Crescent City and Santa Cruz (yep, just a few miles away) were hammered. Back in Japan, international shipping container units - that perfect symbol of global modernity - had been tossed around Sendai like Legos. The airport was devastated, and thousands of lives were snuffed out throughout the region.

Then we heard about the nuke plants.

Perhaps four are facing various stages of meltdown. So far we've witnessed one "hydrogen explosion" (a horrifyingly ambiguous term, if you ask me) - and fear that another could be imminent. Experts promise that Japan's nuclear woes do not portend another Chernobyl. But hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated anyway. As a last ditch effort to contain the damage, at least one two reactor cores have been flooded with seawater. Just in time, because seismologists predict that a 7.5 level aftershock will further shake Japan in a day or two. Oh, and just for good measure, a volcano has erupted in that country's southern region.

Those of us who live in California know that our state is due for similar wreckage (well, maybe without the volcano). Our own customized Big One is deemed a virtual certainty within the next thirty years. One day our friends in Japan will watch, horrified, as we suffer a pain they know all too well. Our two countries are bound together, and they will help us then - even as we try to help them now. That's the face of globalization, too. More than malls stocked with exports, more than movies with globish dialogue, our expanding international network means that we suffer together when bad times come.


Lynnae said...

Great post. It has been so shocking to see the devastation. I worry that Japan's leadership will have a tendency to downplay the radioactive threats from their power plants. When we lived there we were told that many Japanese didn't know they had nuclear power plants in their own country, and US military ships have actually pulled away from Japan's coast and repositioned after sailors showed a high level of radiation absorption.
The USS Ronald Reagan has arrived to deliver aid supplies, and also has the ability to convert large amounts of seawater into potable water, so hopefully they will be able to get in there and help out.

Andrew Wood said...

Thanks for your kind words about the post, Lynnae.

And, wow, I had no idea that some folks - at least back when you were living in Japan - had no idea about the role of nuclear power in their country. That's scary. [Of course the things many Americans don't know about our own country is scary too...]

Now it's clear that events have far outraced my post - and things have gotten worse for Japan in the past 24 hours. I'm on the bus now and just overheard a couple talking about the unfolding disaster. One person shook her head and said, "This is surreal. Can it really be happening?"

Yeah, that about sums it up.