Advancing a Free Society

The Fragility of Complex Societies

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Thoughts on Japan

There is no more ordered, successful and humane urban society than found in Japan. Like most Americans, these last few days I have been moved as never before by the courage and calm of the Japanese people amid such horrific conditions, as one of the most sophisticated and complex urbanized cultures on the planet in a split second is nearly paralyzed. I confess I do not quite fathom the constant American news blitzes about all sorts of China Syndrome scenarios. Radiation pollution is a serious worry, but right now no one has died from exposure and perhaps 10,000 have perished from the tsunami and earthquake. It seems to me the greater worry right now is not yet a meltdown, but the vast dangers resulting from disruptions in food, water, power, and sewage.

Odder still, it was almost crass to watch American TV heads lead in with shrill, hyped-up mini-dramas about possible radiation clouds descending here on the West Coast, even as their backdrop screens showed biblical disasters of earthquake, flood and human wreckage. Whether we are exposed to a chest-X-ray dose of radiation seems insignificant in comparison to the horrific conditions that millions of Japanese are now enduring.

The Efficiency of Complexity Versus the Flexibility of De-centralization

Japan’s high density, central planning, mass transit, demographic uniformity, and a culture of mutual dependence allow millions to live humanely and successfully in quite crowded conditions (in areas of Tokyo at 6,000 persons and more per square kilometer). And compared to other Asian and African cities (Mumbai or a Lagos) even Tokyo is relatively not so dense, though far more successful. Yet such urban societies are extremely vulnerable to the effects of earthquakes, tsunamis, “man-caused disasters” and other assorted catastrophes, analogous in nature perhaps to tightly knit bee colonies that have lost their queens.

I don’t know quite why many of our environmentalists and urban planners wish to emulate such patterns of settlement (OK, I do know), since for us in America it would be a matter of choice, rather than, as in a highly congested Japan, one of necessity. Putting us in apartments and high rises, reliant on buses and trains, and dependent on huge centralized power, water, and sewage grids are recipes not for ecological utopia, but for a level of dependence and vulnerability that could only lead to disaster. Again, I understand that in terms of efficiency of resource utilization, such densities make sense and I grant that culture sparks where people are, but in times of calamity these regimens prove enormously fragile and a fool’s bargain.

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