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Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Japan Syndrome

Coming, as I do, from an alcoholic family, I have a tendency to watch any unfolding disaster with a single idea in the back of my mind: “I knew it.” This is even true of a disaster like the one in Japan, where the causes are seemingly so unpredictable.

Yes, I’m aware of the predictions back in 2009 that global warming could cause earthquakes and tsunamis, as the weight of land-based ice lessens, causing shifts in the Earth’s crust. Yes, I can think like bankers and oil executives, who see in this catastrophe only a short-term dip in demand for oil, followed by a leap in demand for borrowing (to rebuild) in the middle of a global debt crisis. Yes, I can see how increasing population, combined with ancient habits, results in huge, dense cities being built right next to coastlines. And yes, I can connect the dots between a desperate need for more energy to run an increasingly complex society, and Japan’s astonishing choice – after experiencing the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – to develop nuclear power.

But, for all that, I couldn’t have known this would happen. So why do I feel like I did?

Japan’s Prime Minister has said this is the country’s worst crisis since World War II. Looking back at that war, it seems like no coincidence to me. Mankind discovered oil, and machines, and applied the industrial idea to the production of everything – light bulbs, meat, educated children – why not war?

World War II wasn’t just about oil, but it was won by oil, and that industrial assembly line churned out a generation of psychologically damaged soldiers who came back home and – because the Oil Age was developing in other ways – got stuck into crackerbox houses in suburbia, with GI loans and new appliances and wives and kids, and absolutely no cultural support for talking about the horrors they’d seen, and done.

So a big chunk of them started to drink. A generation of alcoholics was followed by a generation of children of alcoholics – baby boomers – with a set of similar psychological symptoms. I was at the tail end of that wave. And one of the primary symptoms is a feeling that something awful is going to happen, and it’s probably my fault.

So when one of us children from an alcoholic (or similarly dysfunctional) family discovers runaway global warming, or peak oil, or civilizational collapse, or even what may or may not be very bad luck – like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan – we think: “I knew it.” We are validated in our deepest, darkest, oldest pain.

Now personally, I think you wouldn’t be able to throw a dead Exxon executive at a Doomer Convention without hitting someone from an alcoholic family. The ranks of activists and gloomy people in general are filled with the children of dysfunctional families. (The only real difference between activists and gloomy people is that activists are people who think they can – and must – fix things, and gloomy people are too far into despair or denial to try.) The positive side of that, is that a whole generation of adult children, having failed to fix their dysfunctional families, are now prepared to project their childhoods out onto the entire Human Family and fix that. And to that I say, Hallelujah! It just makes me wish more parents had started drinking or popping pills in the 50’s, because I could use more colleagues now.

But the downside of it is, that Collapsophiles, with their advanced understanding of every statistical way in which the shit can hit the fan, thus emotionally discount any particular piece of shit when it hits. We write endless essays and blog posts and listserv comments and emails explaining the crise du jour, demonstrating our superior analytical prowess and explaining how this fits into whatever End Times scenario we envision, hopeful or apocalyptic. But I worry that we forget to feel.

In this area, the most uninformed civilian may be way ahead of us – someone who just happens to channel-surf past the news on the way to a Two and a Half Men re-run, sees the devastation in Fukushima, and starts to cry. Because it’s so horribly senseless. Because it doesn’t fit into any human notion of fairness, or kindness, or safety. Because real people, old people, babies, are suffering. That civilian cries for them, and for herself, because she knows that it could happen to her too.

None of us know how the situation in Japan, or on the Earth as a whole, will play out. The Laws of Irony make plain that whatever situations we plan for, will be the only ones that don’t happen. (Turns out brain-eating zombies aren’t interested in the rice you have stored in the basement.) The China Syndrome taught us about reactor core meltdowns. Let’s make sure The Japan Syndrome isn’t a disconnection from our feelings, a triumph of intellect over empathy.

Ich bin

They are us. I grieve.



Blogger David said...

Very good essay. I think you mean 日本人 Japanese (person) instead. 日本语 means Japanese (language)

March 16, 2011 at 2:24 PM  
Blogger Jon Barrett said...

Jon, this is a thoughtful essay which strikes a chord for me. Thank you for posting it.

Having also grown up in a family blighted by alcoholism,I find I absolutely identify with your perceptions. I have often considered my own impulsion towards empathy and activism in the light of my early years' experiences but it had not occurred to me that childhood family dysfunction might be a common experience (and motivation) amongst activists more generally.

But don't regret that more people do not experience personal trauma of this kind - because it does not necessarily always transfer to constructive awareness and activism. Of my three siblings, two lead lives of serious mental dis-ease, in my view as a result of early family dysfunction and are far too vulnerable to be able to consider anything beyond their own troubled lives.

I wrote something on this a year or so ago here:

March 17, 2011 at 5:14 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

Dave - thank you for the correction!

Jon - Your post is lovely and I encourage others to click that link.

Both of you (and others) may be interested in checking out - Kathy McMahon is a clinical psychologist (nom de web Peak Shrink) who's been exploring these issues herself, and helping others explore them, for 5 years from now. She's a precious resource.

Jon - She also did a critique of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which is actually pretty materialistic and imperialist. It isn't the case that people need the basics to be covered to be happy or spiritual - the research actually says that material wealth has little or no correlation. Worth checking out. I'd always taken the pyramid for granted, but everything has cultural subtext.

March 18, 2011 at 7:30 PM  
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