What is just happening in Japan and what is on the verge of happening in Pennsylvania have a deep connection.
In the one, it might seem that disaster flowed from a small-scale decision: that it was “impossible” for a tsunami to get higher than x feet. That decision led to placement of emergency generators for the nuclear power plants in ways that made them vulnerable to being knocked out when a monster tsunami did in fact sweep across northern Japan.
Result: already as I write (5:30 a.m., Eastern US time, Tuesday March 15) radiation at medium levels is venting onto nearby regions of Japan, carrying the seeds of cancer and death that have forced the Prime Minister to tell residents to stay indoors. In the next week, God forbid, there may be a full melt-down of one or more of the damaged plants, rendering large areas of Japan (and possibly Korea, depending on wind currents) as uninhabitable as the Chernobyl melt-down rendered parts of Ukraine, while increasing the rate of cancer deaths in a larger swathe of Europe.
A small mistake, yes? — misgauging the power of a possible earthquake and tsunami. As minor as the small mistake that turned the BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico into an ecological and economic disaster.
But neither one was exactly a “mistake.” The whole nuclear energy system, and the whole system of deep-sea oil drilling (now again permitted in the Gulf), and the whole system of “fracking” for natural gas that endangers the drinking water of millions of Americans — all are the result of a far more profound transgression.
More after the jump.
That transgression is the pursuit of power to control the earth and other human beings that has run amok. Has become not mere “control,” but subjugation. And has brought Plagues upon the Earth and all Humanity, as tyrannical Pharaoh brought plagues upon ancient Egypt.
All life on Earth is the result of a Dance between control and community. Eco-systems are ways in which any given species restrains itself from overwhelming its surroundings, encouraging other species to co-exist with it in a biological community- not using as much power to control as it might, so that it can continue to live in the longer run.
(For example: an amoeba might gaily multiply itself into proliferous plurality, gobbling up all the sugary water in the vicinity – until there is no more sugar and too many amoebae, who then all abruptly die. But if the amoebae learn to limit themselves and leave space for other life-forms, what emerges is a eco-system. Fewer amoebae at any one moment, but they can live on into the future.)
In human culture, knowing when to Do and when to Pause, when to restrain one’s self, when to encourage a community instead of gobbling up all wealth and power for one’s self, is crucial. All the great traditions tried to teach this wisdom. Indeed, it was made them great, able to live across millennia.
When some human institution of Power-Over over-reached, ran amok – like Pharaoh, the Babylonian Empire, Rome – the corrective came in a great new surge of community – new kinds of community. But Modernity has become an adventure in Over-reaching, Over-powering, far beyond any previous imperial power.
And the result has been General Electric’s convincing Japanese governments that its expertise could overpower earthquakes and tsunamis, that nuclear energy was more “profitable” than wind or solar energy could ever be, that the “cost” of a billion dollars each for these brittle power plants was better spending than conserving energy in the first place, learning to live within limits, encouraging decentralized arrays of sun and wind power that lived in the nooks and crannies of the Earth instead of trying to dominate it.
And the spending was better – for General Electric. And for BP. And for Massey Coal. But not better for the Earth or human earthlings.
And now let’s look at the other obscene word — “fracking” — in the same light. It’s slang for “hydrofracturing” — that is pouring tons of chemicalized and pressurized water into shale rock that has within it natural gas that can only be accessed by fracturing the rock.
But this means that the water table is poisoned. Watching the film Gasland, one sees drinking water flaming up – literally burning – when a match is touched to it.
Obviously, thank God and the wisdom of our Congress, such processes that poison the drinking water of millions of people are forbidden by the Clean Water Act.
But — Vice-President Chaney and the Big Oil conglomerates he worked for persuaded Congress to exempt oil and gas companies from the provisions of the Clean Water Act.
How did they pull this off? With money, of course. Money in campaign contributions, money in lavish lobbying (of judges, not only Congress). This money was not wasted. It was an investment, mere millions paying off in multibillions of profit.
And what did the exemption mean? That the fracking companies don’t even report what the chemicals are they are putting in the water. Independent researchers, working on shoe-strings, have isolated some of them: cancer-producers among them. And that the fracking companies expect enough profits to make it worth their while to buy state governors and legislatures.
So in Pennsylvania, not only is there no regulation of fracking but not even taxes on the fracking profits.
The companies plan tens of thousands of fracking wells in the Marcellus Shale region. In the shale region itself, some wells that have watered farm families for generations are already poisoned. It may take a generation for Philadelphians to start dying of the cancer-causing chemicals that seep into their drinking water.
Just as it took the Fukushima nukes a generation to start poisoning the Japanese people.
“Frack you!” say the oil companies. “Fukushima you!” says General Electric.
What we need is the birthing of a new kind of community, just as ancient wandering Hebrews responded to Pharaoh with Sinai, as Biblical Israel responded to Rome with both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, as the Arabian tribes responded to the tyrants of Mecca with Islam.
A planetary community.
Rabbi Phyllis Berman and I concluded that that was the crucial wisdom we need to learn from the story of Exodus, when we wrote Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness Across Millennia. For more information on the book, and on the Interfaith Freedom Seder for the Earth, please see the Shalom Center website.
But it’s not just us, or that book. More, of course, to come.
Blessings of shalom, salaam, of a deeper, fuller freedom for the Earth and all Humanity.