Fukushima or the end of the Anthropocene

The tsunami that hit north-east Japan and the consecutive explosions in the Fukushima nuclear power plant constitute an implacable whole – an interconnectedness of human, geological and psychical catastrophes.
The interlocking of natural elements with industrial objects has made our planet an open-air laboratory. There is no longer anywhere on earth that escapes this experimentation. If there is a geological epicentre of the earthquake that devastated the north-east of the island of Honshu, Fukushima and its power plant represent the symbolic epicentre of the anthropocene.
Since the beginning of the industrial era, homo faber has been constructed as a central and all-powerful geological force. This period began, two hundred years ago, with the beginnings of the industrial revolution. Today, all the cycles of the biosphere have been modified by human activity – the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the phosphorous cycle etc.
Glaciologists have measured high dosages of greenhouse gasses within polar icecaps, which appeared with the beginning of industrialisation and which are at levels that are unprecedented over the previous 800 000 years. The current climatic conditions, profoundly disrupted, are no longer simply natural. Never before have the elements undergone such rapid change. Energy from coal, oil and uranium have conferred on homo faber an increased capacity for the exploitation and destruction of nature.
The dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the climax of the anthropocene era. Electronuclear energy stems from the original sin of the explosion of the atomic bomb.
Uranium and plutonium are today brought together in the combustible fuel Mox, which is the pride of the French nuclear industry. “Environmentally friendly” because they recycle some of the highly radioactive nuclear waste, “confined” to drums and pools today spilled in Fukushima, these materials – the most dangerous on earth – are used in switches, radiators, refrigerators, factories and high-speed trains.
The giddiness of mass consumerism having become a state of nature over the second half of the 20th century, the providers of nuclear electricity have put rose coloured glasses on a global trend that is presented as a form of emancipation. Indeed, the recent advertisement for Areva shows a nuclear power plant near a beach – think Copacabana or Sendai before the tsunami – where a techno beach party is in full swing.
Because the anthropocene is also just that: an era of exuberance that abolishes anxiety, where cars and flat screen TVs have become basic human rights. An era of addiction, where the production of means has become the end itself, the end of existence. An era of speed, where growth, which relies on endless production and consumption cycles, must unceasingly produce useless objects for those who already have too many. This is the logic of productivism itself.
The very volume of electro-industrial objects exceeds our capacities of comprehension, it is beyond our imagination and our sentiments, writes the philosopher Günther Anders. That Japan, this vulnerable archipelago already hit by two atomic bombs, consented to the construction of fifty four nuclear reactors on a fault line, undoubtedly illustrates the limits of human understanding when faced with these stupefying creations.
Until the day when the sleeping conscience wakes up to the monsters it created. Time bombs – nuclear, climatic, chemical – begin to explode. This is where we are.
Faced with the ruins of devastated towns, faced with the texture of the future, irrevocably changed, the dread is never ending. The reparation of such immense destruction will be long and hard, if it is even possible. But the meltdown and explosion within the reactors are both irreparable and irreversible. Whole areas will be forever contaminated and off-limits, like in Tarkovski’s Stalker.
Nuclear energy is of a different temporal order than the telluric force of tectonic plates, or the heat of volcanoes. The explosion of elements has revealed the excesses as well as the fragility of these thermo-industrial machines.
Humanity, both perpetrator and victim of this excess, has created the conditions of its own vulnerability by becoming a motor for geological transformation more dangerous than the forces of the earth. Today, the explosion of the Fukushima power plant tells us that we have reached the deafening finale of the anthropocene. This catastrophe has ordered us to keep a vigil that is independent of the rhythm of thermo-industrial machines.
The end of the world that is unfolding in north-east Japan calls for a burst of effort on our part. It calls for an awakening as to the inanity of current forms of growth, founded on a terrifying hunger for energy, for the temporary profit of a handful of global corporations. Our societies must come to their senses, to invent systems that are human-sized, resilient and cooperative.
Agnès Sinaï is an environmental journalist and the co-founder teacher of the Momentum Institute. She teaches at Sciences Po. Paris.
This article appeared in Le Monde newspaper on March 19 2011.