Since yesterday the news about radiation levels in Japan has become far more ominous. It appears even the experts aren’t sure what’s going to happen next or what the likely consequences might be.
There appears to be a strong potential for widespread public exposure to devastating amounts of radiation. This outcome may not be inevitable, however. And we may not know the truth of the situation for a long time.
I am struck by the way reactions to this unfolding tragedy are tinted by human reactors’ personal biases. A clear example of this is Glenn Beck, of course. Beck’s explanation of how nuclear reactors work involved M&Ms and cookware, which arguably trivialized the disaster, although it wasn’t necessarily wrong.
But then he launched into a diatribe about how scientists were spinning the situation at Japan’s reactors into something worse than it really is to promote their personal agendas, whatever that is, and that the real danger to the world is that if the bond market fails America will have no more money, and then people will die because “the U.S. military won’t be able to go in and save them; won’t be able to go in and protect them. … Ask what happens. Ask the people in Libya what happens.” Surreal. And, anyway, my understanding is that the biggest threat to the bond market is Republicans in Congress who are balking at raising the debt ceiling. But that’s another rant.
Oh, and Rush is telling his listeners there is no nuclear danger in Japan, that the reactors are “behaving as designed,” and that “the media” is (sic) speading disaster stories because “the media wants a disaster in Japan.” One wonders what Rush’s tune would be if he lived next door to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and he thought radiation might reach him.
Beyond the frightening stories of radiation leaks, the bigger issue (seems to me) is the widespread and terrible destruction from the tsunami. We see videos of communities in devastation and want to help.
Felix Salmon wrote a column for Reuters warning people “don’t donate money to Japan.” His argument is that donations earmarked for a particular disaster often “leave large piles of money unspent in one place while facing urgent needs in other places.”
Commenters pointed out that many relief organizations accept donations with a disclaimer that surplus funds may be applied elsewhere. And other relief organizations don’t allow for earmarking of donations at all, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use a burst of cash during an extraordinary crisis.
Salmon also wrote, “we are all better at responding to human suffering caused by dramatic, telegenic emergencies than to the much greater loss of life from ongoing hunger, disease and conflict. That often results in a mess of uncoordinated NGOs parachuting in to emergency areas with lots of good intentions, where a strategic official sector response would be much more effective.”
That last probably is true. I also have no doubt that various evangelical groups already are planning their crusades to Japan to rescue the simple indigenous people for Christ in their time of need. (Update: Yep.)
So if you do want to donate money, I suggest giving to the excellent Tzu Chi, a Buddhist relief organization headquartered in Taiwan. Relief efforts in Japan are being coordinated through long-established Tzu Chi offices and volunteer groups in Japan, not by random do-gooders parachuting in from elsewhere. Tzu Chi does a lot of good work around the globe, so your money will be put to good use somewhere.
Salmon also says,
Japan is a wealthy country which is responding to the disaster, among other things, by printing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of new money. Money is not the bottleneck here: if money is needed, Japan can raise it.
Well, the U.S. is a wealthy country, also, but that didn’t help New Orleans, did it? However, reading through comments on various sites, I’ve been struck by how many people bring up New Orleans as an example of undeserving people being given too much help, when the fact is that the U.S. government sat on its hands and allowed the stricken parishes of New Orleans to rot. But that’s another rant.
Anyway — in the long term it may very well be true that Japan has the resources to put itself together again, but in the short term it’s also probably true that people need immediate help that government may not be ready to provide. Experienced relief organizations like Tzu Chi, Doctors Without Borders, etc. probably are much better than government at responding to the immediate human crisis and the needs of people in the hours and days after a disaster.
I see also that Annie Lowrey warns against giving money earmarked for very specific projects, because it is often the case that charities find themselves with a glut of money earmarked for projects that, it turned out, nobody really needed, while there is no money to meet other needs that are genuinely critical. I think the moral is that it’s best to give money to experienced and reputable relief organizations and let them decide what to do with it.
I’ve read articles noting that there appears to be no looting in Japan. Again, this is bringing up very ugly and racist comparisons with New Orleans. In the credit where credit is due department, a post at American Thinker (normally too right wing for my taste) has a more plausible explanation of why the Japanese may be better at maintaining social norms in extraordinary times than most people.
Back now to the nuclear issue — should we or should we not be re-thinking use of nuclear power? Greg Palast wrote that nuclear reactors can’t be trusted because the people who build and run them can’t be trusted, and that Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) is involved in nuclear power projects planned for the United States, and we should all be afraid. At the same time, two of the damaged plants in Japan were built by General Electric. And we should all be afraid.
On the other hand, as Josh Marshall points out, the proper and planned use of fossil fuels is, arguably, causing a bigger disaster to the planet and taking more lives than the terrible but localized consequences of a failed nuclear reactor. It could be argued that in the long run, nuclear power is safer than fossil fuel power.
On the third hand, there is William Saletan. At the beginning of his column, his position seems to be that, yeah, maybe some people will get hurt by radiation leaks, but only wusses get hysterical about it. Explaining that the U.S. seems to have moved on after last year’s Gulf oil spill, Saletan says,
That’s how we deal with tragedies in the oil business. Accidents happen. People die. Pollution spreads. We don’t abandon oil. We study what went wrong, try to fix it, and move on.
That may mean we are crazy, but what the hey. But then Saletan goes on to make the point that nuclear power probably is safer in the long run than fossil fuel. Which says to me that we really, really need other sources of energy.