A lesson in modesty - Made in Japan.

A lesson in modesty - Made in Japan.

tsunamiAs already mentioned in short in the Welcome section of this magazine, the recent dramatic events for sure have put many people in shock and have set them in a mental conditioning of self-examination: why did it hit us so badly, where were we wrong?

We never will be able to predict major earthquakes sufficiently well or even control or avoid most of their effects, but we can try to limit those devastating consequences that we have witnessed recently.

Man, through his self-consciousness and self-esteem, always has put himself on top of all creations. He even estimates himself as being capable of controlling many of the natural forces on earth or of avoiding their negative consequences. This belief is not new; it started in ancient times and it used at that time the benevolent attitude of their gods to achieve their goals. Nowadays we tend to worship "exact science" and "computer simulations" to stroke our self-esteem.

firelondonSince centuries, mankind had to cope with natural or man-made dramatic events. (*)The "Great Pest" or the "Black Death" was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350. It is widely thought to have started in China and was imported into Europe through the Silk Road and through merchant vessels that were populated by flea-infected rats. The Black Death is estimated to have killed 30% – 60% of Europe's population, mainly in the densely populated cities where these rats were running freely around on the streets and in the houses. Or the "Great Fire" in London in 1666 where central parts of the English city were put to ashes during a 4-day fire storm and consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Pauls Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City authorities. It is estimated that it destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the City's 80,000 inhabitants. Both disasters - although initially with a small effect - became enormous threats to the population due to the way cities at that time were constructed and people were living their life. We didn't stop building cities, but we learned from the weaknesses in our system and improved the implementation at next occasion.

Other examples where arrogance, negligence and pumped up self esteem had to face its consequences, were:

The Titanic. When the "unsinkable" Titanic was ordered to steam ahead amidst icebergs with full power in order to hit a new record on the transatlantic transport chart, it was an inexcusable stupid initiative. Also the fact that the people who were responsible for overall security didn't allow to put sufficient safety vessels on board is what makes this story so heartbreaking and showed how unforgivably arrogant mankind can be. But even then, we didn't stop making vessels. We started to make them safer.

Dam breaks. Many dams have broken and most of them were due to clogged and blocked emergency spillways before or after heavy rainfall. The following story describes the worst dam break in the US and the poignant arrogant behaviour mankind can show (*): in the late 1800s, Johnstown was a thriving -- if somewhat modest -- community in western Pennsylvania. Just 14 miles away, however, was the South Fork Hunting & Fishing Club, an exclusive enclave. In 1879 the club had restored an abandoned earthen dam and created Lake Conemaugh, a pleasure lake used for sailing and ice boating, which they stocked with expensive game fish.

Some people in Johnstown feared the dam wasn't safe. Daniel Morrell, one of Johnstown's most prominent civic leaders even had the dam inspected, and wrote to the club pointing out major flaws -- including the lack of an adequate water outlet -- but his concerns were summarily dismissed.

In May 1889 there were several days of extraordinarily heavy rains. By May 31, management at the club realized the dam was in danger of giving way, but there was little they could do. As Morrell had pointed out, the water outlet at the base of the dam had been filled in years before, and the emergency spillway, which had been reduced in size and covered with screens to prevent expensive fish from escaping, was now clogged with debris.

Messages were sent to Johnstown warning that the dam might give, but after years of false alarms, the messages were ignored. The water began to top the dam, and eventually it gave way... In the end, more than 2,200 people died in the Johnstown flood.

The same applies to airplanes. The only sour benefit of plane accidents is that these dramatic events provide us the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and to improve the current concept. It is sad for the victims and for those who are left behind, but it does not serve mankind to decide to stop flying. This reasoning is not an argument for "Progress at all Cost", but the real challenge of mankind is to improve man-made systems in such a way that benefits and risks are in an acceptable level of harmony.

The recent dramatic events in Japan will stay in our common memory and in history. Never before have we been confronted with such shocking pictures, almost in real time. Personal dramas of victims of the tsunami came into our homes and computers as if they were inhabitants of next-door villages. Direct coverage and internet allowed us to sense the devastating effects of the events and to feel connected with the victims. The heroic efforts of the technicians in the damaged nuclear reactors could be followed with little delay. It was as if you were there, watching from a safe distance. Distress and disaster evolved from anonymous newspaper headlines to real and close drama. It received a human face. You literally could watch people searching for their disappeared family members amidst a surrealistic mass of rubble, a couple of hours after the deluge. You could follow entire homes wiped away like matchboxes by the enormous tsunami waves. Here, the government will have the task to re-think construction prescriptions as most destroyed homes seem to have been made from wood. The buildings made of concrete were left standing up in the middle of a warzone-like scenery with lucky refugees on top of them, watching the brutal force of the waves doing their untenable destruction. Construction made of concrete and wide wall-mounted safety staircases are some very basic modifications on civil construction that are imminent.

nukeAnd then the ultimate horror: 4 loose-running nuclear reactors without cooling and control. But, will we stop nuclear energy? No. Not because we love it, but because mankind is such an "energy-junky" that we cannot afford to stop with nuclear energy on short term. The only option now is to really learn from the obvious mistakes and flaws in the factory and safety designs and to implement the compulsory improvements immediately. And to become more modest in our self-esteem. To become more open to alternative and challenging opinions. Because what happened to the nuclear plants in Fukushima after the tsunami should not have happened at all. We never will be able to avoid earthquakes and eventual tsunamis, but we must put reliable systems in place to avoid the devastating consequences like demonstrated in Fukushima. It is time to listen (more) to the critics of the nuclear power lobby. Nuclear power does not allow for any significant mistakes. Because there is no room for it. Here, as we all have witnessed now, risks and benefits are not in an acceptable level of harmony. The responsible people for the designing and safety of these nuclear plants have been naive as little kids in their high self-esteem to be able to have thought about every possible scenario and to control everything possible. We know better now, they should re-think and re-design.

We all should re-think after this lesson in modesty - made in Japan.

(*) some info has been collected from Wikipedia.

Michel