An example of Bateson’s hubris in action

After talking about Bateson’s views on hubris yesterday, I thought the best thing to write about today would be to find an example that tests them.

Climate change and the financial crisis both seemed like suitable topics, but they are large and nebulous subject areas; difficult to pin down.

Then I realised that a much more specific topic has been staring me in the face on Facebook for a couple of days.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was one of the 15 largest nuclear power stations in the world. It was first commissioned in 1971. On 11 March 2011, following an earthquake and tsunami, it experienced a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns, and releases of radioactive materials.

How the Japanese government responded to this disaster will be a good test of what Bateson was talking about.

But before I can do that, I first need to review the two articles that have been circulating on Facebook. Then you will be able to judge whether this is a fair test, and to assess how effective the responses to the disaster have been.

Where Fukushima is, After One Year

The first recent article about Fukushima is here. It describes how, one year after the disaster, the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection estimates that Fukushima still has the potential to release radioactive Caesium 137 equivalent to eighty-five Chernobyl disasters. (You can read about the health risks of C-137 here and here.) The NCRP says that this is equivalent to “nearly half of  the total amount of Cs-137 estimated by the NCRP to have been released by all atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, Chernobyl, and world-wide reprocessing plants.”

The good news is, the release of all that past radiation hasn’t killed us. The bad news is that this new C-137 is currently all concentrated in one place at one time.

As a former Japanese Ambassador to Switzerland puts it: “It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of Japan and the whole world depends on NO.4 reactor.”

Ambassadors are not known for using inflated language. Japanese ambassadors doubly so.

The second piece circulating is from CTV in Canada. (Canada, you will remember, is downwind of the Fukushima plant.) The article contains details about the more than 1,500 fuel rods “all bound by a fragile concrete pool located 30 metres above the ground, and exposed to the elements.” It says that “a magnitude 7 or 7.5 earthquake would likely fracture that pool.”

“The 1,535 spent fuel rods would become exposed to the air and would likely catch fire, with the most-recently added fuel rods igniting first. The incredible heat generated from that blaze … could then ignite the older fuel in the cooling pool, causing a massive oxygen-eating radiological fire that could not be extinguished with water… The health consequences of that are beyond where science has ever gone before.”

Reactor number three has a similar cooling pool that contains less radioactive material, but “poses a greater risk of failing.”

There is a need for more urgent action than is currently being taken, the article says. Because although a magnitude 7-7.5 earthquake doesn’t happen every day, we all know there was a magnitude nine quake only a year ago.

Testing Bateson

OK, so that sets the scene. A nuclear plant was built in 1971, operated successfully for forty years, and then was struck by a “40-foot-high tsunami … twice as tall as the highest wave predicted by officials.”

Twelve months on, and the disaster is still in process, and could get much worse. Some fairly serious and well-informed people are saying that the “fate of the world” depends on whether fuel rods can be removed before a magnitude 7-7.5 earthquake happens.

Now I’d now like you to forget the details of what you have just read and begin to think about how this story relates to what we were discussing about Bateson, yesterday.

As a first step you need to decide whether you agree that: 1) the Fukushima nuclear disaster is a very significant event or situation, such that 2) the way our species has responded to it is a good example of how the our culture/thinking deals with important issues and events.

If you agree with both these points, then examining the response to Fukushima will enable us to test what we proposed yesterday: that something in our western thinking as a whole, especially our reliance on ‘technological prowess’, is leading us “to irrevocably damage and destroy” the entire planet.

Japan’s Response is Representative of Our Response

Japan is no tinpot backwater. It is the third largest economy in the world. Its legislative body, the National Diet of Japan, comprises an upper house and a lower house,  which are run according to a constitution that was imposed by the western powers at the end of the second world war. That imposition has been described as “perhaps the single most exhaustively planned operation of massive and externally directed political change in world history”.

For these reasons I believe that the response of the Japanese government can also be taken as a good proxy for what any of our governments would have done; a proxy for ‘the way our species currently thinks about and interacts with the world’.

What follows, then, is directed not at any one particular group of human beings, but at all of us as a species.

Our Response to the Disaster

The ‘National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission’ was formed by statutory law enacted by the Diet of Japan in October 2011.*

It was assigned two objectives:

  1. To elucidate the background and causes of the accident
  2. To make proposals concerning policies and measures to prevent future accidents at nuclear plants and to reduce the damage occurring in the event of an accident.

In respect of the first of these objectives, reports on the causes of the disaster have been written that run to hundreds of pages, for example here and here. Even Wikipedia has an exhaustive, shorter, list of the cascade of failures that struck the plant.

But the causes are simple:

  1. Before the tsunami and earthquake happened, human beings failed to carry out the safety checks they were supposed to
  2. During and immediately after the tsunami and earthquake happened, human beings failed to act as they were supposed to
  3. The architects and engineers who designed the plant interpreted the small chance of an event (earthquake/tsunami) as “it will never happen” instead of “it is bound to happen eventually”. They therefore proceeded on the basis that there were ‘acceptable limits’ on their design tolerance.
  4. The people who took the decision to build the plant showed a lack of empathy as to the impacts that a ‘very unlikely’ nuclear catastrophe would have, on people and the planet. Their unspoken assumption was that even if the catastrophe did happen, it would happen to ‘someone else’, not the decision makers.
  5. Once the plant was built, there was an ongoing “false belief in the country’s ‘technological infallibility'” and a resistance to any pressures against nuclear power.
  6. While all the above was going on, the people of the world (the Japanese people, you and me) allowed the nuclear plants to be commissioned, designed, built, and operated in this way, knowing that some day, somewhere there will be another nuclear accident, and believing that there is nothing we can do to stop it, or that the risks will be ‘acceptable’ and the consequences will happen to ‘someone else’.

Our reading of Bateson yesterday shows that what happened shows that our thinking (what we expected to happen) contains errors about all three levels of how the world actually works:

  • People: Didn’t behave the way we thought they would
  • Society: Government didn’t behave the way we thought it would (if it were operating rationally for the good of the country)
  • Ecosystem: Didn’t behave in the way we thought it would (to the extent that it created a tidal wave twice as high as the tallest wave predicted)

People, society, and the ecosystem did not behave the way we thought they would.

They never have, and they never will.

And yet the second objective is:

“To make proposals concerning policies and measures to prevent future accidents at nuclear plants and to reduce the damage occurring in the event of an accident.”

This very statement proves all that I have said above.

In spite of what has happened at Fukushima, this response continues the same mind-set that built and maintained the plant in the first place. It instructs the Investigation Commission to find policies and measures that will give a “Low probability of something going wrong, and low damage if it does.”

This is exactly the thinking that got the Fukushima plant built in the first place.

We already know the result of this approach: everything was fine for a while, and then we got the worst disaster in history.

If the Commission makes new proposals to ‘prevent’ (aka ‘reduce the likelihood of’) future accidents… and reduce the damage in the event of an accident, then the result of this thinking (if it continues) will be exactly the same as it was last time: everything will be fine for a while and then we will get the next worst disaster in history.

The ONLY way to prevent future accidents at nuclear plants is not to build nuclear plants.

Reviewing the summary of Bateson we looked at yesterday:

  • Consciousness is the bridge between the cybernetic networks of individual, society and ecology, and the mismatch between the systems due to improper understanding will result in the degradation of the entire supreme cybernetic system or Mind.
    At Fukushima, mistaken understanding of how people, society and ecology truly work has led to “the fate of Japan and the whole world” depending on reactor no. 4.
  • Occidental epistemology perpetuates a system of understanding which is purpose or means-to-an-end driven. Purpose controls attention and narrows perception, thus limiting what comes into consciousness and therefore limiting the amount of wisdom that can be generated from the perception.
    In March 2012, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said that the government shared the blame for the Fukushima disaster, saying that officials had been blinded by a false belief in the country’s “technological infallibility”, and were taken in by a “safety myth”.
  • Additionally Occidental epistemology propagates the false notion of that man exists outside Mind and this leads man to believe in what Bateson calls the philosophy of control based upon false knowledge.
    At Fukushima, the ‘false knowledge’ included the belief that the highest possible tsunami was 20 feet high, and that any catastrophe would happen to ‘someone else’, not the people who took decisions to build the plant.
  • Occidental epistemology as a method of thinking that leads to a mindset in which man exerts an autocratic rule over all cybernetic systems. In exerting his autocratic rule man changes the environment to suit him and in doing so he unbalances the natural cybernetic system of controlled competition and mutual dependency.
    TEPCO and the government had for a long time tightly controlled the information Japanese people receive about nuclear energy and its alternatives. This made the accident more likely and made preparations to deal with it less likely (since opposition was quashed).
  • The purpose driven accumulation of knowledge ignores the supreme cybernetic system and leads to the eventual breakdown of the entire system. Bateson claims that man will never be able to control the whole system because it does not operate in a linear fashion and if man creates his own rules for the system, he opens himself up to becoming a slave to the self-made system due to the non-linear nature of cybernetics.
    At Fukushima, the desire to generate electricity using nuclear power led to clear warning signs to be ignored.  “An in-house study in 2008 pointed out that there was an immediate need to improve the protection of the power station from flooding by seawater. This study mentioned the possibility of tsunami-waves up to 10.2 meters. Officials of the department at the company’s headquarters insisted however that such a risk was unrealistic and did not take the prediction seriously.”
    The ‘whole world’ is currently at risk.
    We may be lucky this time.
    But if we continue to take the gamble, there will definitely come a time when our ‘luck’ runs out. 

  • Lastly, man’s technological prowess combined with his scientific hubris gives him to potential to irrevocably damage and destroy the supreme cybernetic system, instead of just disrupting the system temporally until the system can self-correct.
    In March 2012, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said that the government shared the blame for the Fukushima disaster, saying that officials had been blinded by a false belief in the country’s “technological infallibility”, and were taken in by a “safety myth”. This has led to “the fate of Japan and the whole world” depending on reactor no. 4.
  • Bateson argues for a position of humility and acceptance of the natural cybernetic system instead of scientific arrogance as a solution.[16] He believes that humility can come about by abandoning the view of operating through consciousness alone. Consciousness is only one way in which to obtain knowledge and without complete knowledge of the entire cybernetic system disaster is inevitable. The limited conscious must be combined with the unconscious in complete synthesis. Only when thought and emotion are combined in whole is man able to obtain complete knowledge. He believed that religion and art are some of the few areas in which a man is acting as a whole individual in complete consciousness. By acting with this greater wisdom of the supreme cybernetic system as a whole man can change his relationship to Mind from one of schism, in which he is endlessly tied up in constant competition, to one of complementarity. Bateson argues for a culture that promotes the most general wisdom and is able to flexibly change within the supreme cybernetic system.
    At Fukushima, humility would have led us to realise that people, society and the environment do not always behave as we would like. Acceptance of people as emotional animals rather than rational ones would have helped.
    Realisation that a low likelihood of something means that it will happen eventually, not that it will never happen woud also have helped.
    The same goes for a degree of empathy between those who take decisions and those who will be affected by them.

Fukushima has been called an ‘accident’.

The only ‘accidental’ thing about it was the timing.


*The ‘Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations of Tokyo Electric Power Company’, formed by the Japanese cabinet in May 2011 had similar goals. Its aim was “making policy proposals on measures to prevent further spread of the damage caused by the accident and a recurrence of similar accidents in the future, by conducting a multifaceted investigation in an open and neutral manner that is accountable to the Japanese public to determine the causes of the accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi and Dai-ni Nuclear Power Stations”. Here is their  Interim report, published December 26th 2011.

The  Japanese Nuclear Technology Institute also published a report on the accident, in October 2011.

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