James Kunstler calls the collapse of industrial society a “long emergency” – a process that unfolds in fits and starts over generations. Some social conflicts we witness in the world today – banking crises, war, refugees, racism – can be understood as symptoms of this long, ecologically-triggered collapse. Russian author Dmitry Orlov describes the five stages of collapse: Financial, commercial, political, social, and, finally, cultural. When business-as-usual becomes impossible, communities seek alternatives to currency trading; markets fail, faith in government disappears, trust of neighbours erodes, and people lose faith in common decency.
Dr. Joseph Tainter, professor of Environment and Society at Utah State University describes collapse as a “simplification” of society, a reversal of the process by which the society became increasingly complex. “To understand collapse,” he explains, “we have to understand complexity.”
Societies evolve complex solutions to solve social problems that arise, generally from environmental limits. Eventually, the marginal benefits of these alleged solutions decline. Consider oil, military aggression, or nuclear power as solutions to problems, that later manifest unintended consequences. As technical solutions meet bio-physical limits, added investment leads to less benefit, until the society grows vulnerable to catastrophe, such as global warming, war, or radiation.
Societies collapse, according to Tainter, when technical complexities cost more than they return as benefits. This understanding of social collapse fits the state of chaos now unfolding at the nuclear plant at Fukushima.
Socialise the cost
TEPCO, the company that owns the Fukushima reactors, ignored early warnings of risk, from both inside and outside the company, because the safeguards were too expensive. Thus, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami destroyed the plant’s cooling systems and led to a core meltdown in all three reactors.
Today, six years later, the reactor cores are melting down through the rock, and radiation levels are so intense that even robots can’t survive long enough to locate the burning fuel rods. Removal of the rods, originally scheduled for 2015, then delayed until 2017, has been delayed again, with no end in sight. Meanwhile, 300 tons of radioactive water floods into the Pacific Ocean every day.