Fukushima to Baltimore: Disaster in a shrinking world

Why this catastrophe feels close, even from thousands of miles away

March 20, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

Here where we live, far from Fukushima, we go about our business. The amygdala, the part of the human brain that worries about things, is not conditioned to worry about earthquakes and tsunamis in the Mid-Atlantic.

We might worry about a snowstorm when the meteorologists issue a warning and the TV news operations go into panic mode. We worry about the effect of a tropical storm or an occasional hurricane; heavy rains create anxiety about the soundness of our roofs and basement walls. But, aside from episodes of "big weather," those of us who live in the midsection of the Atlantic Coast of the United States go about our business without worry that nature will wipe away our civilization.

Earthquakes happen somewhere else — thousands of miles away — and tsunami is something we associate with tropical places, in the far reaches of the globe.

Moreover, when natural disaster does occur here, it's never anything on the scale of the still-unfolding nightmare in Japan.

Much of our anxiety is related to things we have done — not nature. The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 started when someone's carelessly discarded cigar butt slipped into the basement of a downtown clothing warehouse. Fires, accidents, gas leaks, explosions, rivers polluted by sewage, ozone depletion — these are all the results of human folly, not nature's destructiveness. Most of our mayhem is manmade.

Here in the vast Chesapeake watershed, we have long-simmering concerns: environmental conditions and public health, for instance. While the old industrial smokestacks are mostly gone, there is a legacy of environmental degradation from them, and from the long abuse of the land, air and water during an epoch of growth. The population of the region continues to grow, and that brings new challenges to the environment and to resources.

But while some of us fret about that — about the health of the world we'll be leaving to our children and grandchildren — we do not have the volcanic fear. We lose no sleep that the bottom of the Atlantic will suddenly shift, causing immediate damage to the civilization we've built at the water's edge before sending a tsunami to wipe it away.

I imagine a man in the time of the Great Baltimore Fire, or just before it, standing on Charles Street with a copy of The Baltimore Sun. He's reading a brief telegraph story from somewhere in Asia, telling of earthquake and tsunami. Without the benefit of color videos or photographs transmitted from a satellite, the devastation is left to the man's imaginings. The world, in 1904, must have seemed much bigger than it does today; it must have been hard for the man to appreciate the devastation, impossible for him to hear nature's homicidal roar from such a distance. It would have been easy for him to dismiss the disaster as something isolated, remote, inflicted on people living in huts, and of no immediate concern to the commerce of his country, much less his city.

Not so today. Technology has shrunk the world, and the horror of Japan comes to us in high definition.

This time, disaster happened to an advanced society like our own, one that is commercially connected to many other nations. Manufacturers all over the globe are adjusting for disruptions in the supply chains because of the disaster. Japan makes almost 40 percent of the world's electronics and audio-visual components, according to a report from Daiwa Securities cited by a shipping news website. The country produces 20 percent of the world's silicon wafers used to make semiconductors, according to The Wall Street Journal, and Japan supplies about 90 percent of the world's bismaleimide triazine, a resin used in making circuit boards for telephones. The disaster has slowed production by Japanese automakers, but it has also affected American companies. General Motors plans to close a U.S. plant because of an anticipated shortage in Japanese-made parts for pickup trucks.

So we're far from Fukushima, as far in miles as ever, but the world is a smaller place, more connected than ever. Technology forces us to see the faces of those who suffer in a nation that contributed to technology's advance. That's a good thing. In a way that was never true before globalization and the Information Age, we are affected by massive natural disaster, and should be humbled by it, even if we don't worry about it happening here.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He hosts Midday, Mondays through Fridays on WYPR. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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