The catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan speaks of many things. It speaks of corporate greed – its owner has been convicted of falsifying safety data in a singular pursuit of enriching itself even if its workers and perhaps countless others might die. It speaks of generations of Japanese governments that have pumped billions of yen into larger and larger construction projects, as if their eventual goal was to encase the whole island in concrete. It speaks of the sheer power of nature.
It also speaks of hubris. Of a blind arrogance that we can tame nature and that human-built and human-run technologies can all be safe – not a bad assumption if one is building a toaster but less reassuring when the machine has the capacity to cause widespread death.
Where did these twin beliefs come from: conquering nature and the ability of humans to be godlike, beyond fault?
Hint: It has something to do with male-dominated societies.
Not with men – for I don’t think males by nature are any more prone to stupidity or human frailty than females – but with the underlying belief systems common to male-dominated societies and the ideas we have inculcated in generations of men.
Many years ago, philosopher Mary O’Brien wrote a wonderful book called The Politics of Reproduction. Among other things she speculated that the urge by men to dominate women and dominate nature had something to do with a collective wonder, amazement, and jealousy for the amazing gift that women had: to bring life into the world. Controlling women was the way to control reproduction, to ensure that a child was your child.
(Adding to this, there was another life-giving force that women seemed to control: in many cultures, women likely had chief responsibility for the domestication of animals and the development of agriculture – the so-called Neolithic revolution which was the single greatest technological leap in the history of humans.)
With the rise of male-dominated societies, the locus of life and death could shift from women to men. It is no surprise that the great monotheistic religions (Judaism and then Christianity and Islam) were modeled on the image of an all-wise, all-knowing, and punishing father figure. In the common foundation story of these religions, it is a male-like God who creates all life, including a male human from whom is made the first female.
Step aside, girls. We’ve got the whole creation and life thing under control.
I hear you whisper: and what does this have to do with a nuclear catastrophe?
It is because, over the millennia, male-dominated societies have been in a relentless quest to perfect and control nature.
When the scale was small, the results were (and still are) pretty exciting. True, as Ronald Wright eloquently describes in his important book, A Short History of Progress, some of our societies got caught in ‘progress traps’ and created agricultural technologies that led to environmental (and human) disaster, but this was confined to local areas or regions.
But harnessing fossil fuels and releasing the energy bound in atomic nuclei not only unleashes staggering potential but staggering levels of danger, as we see in the relentless march of climate change and the absurdity of the nuclear industry where we are creating not only deadly waste that we have no safe way of transporting, storing, or disposing of, but which repeatedly has led to catastrophic breakdowns.
All because part of the project of male-dominated societies is to control nature.
All because of our foolish belief that our little brains and clever tools are greater than the forces of tectonic plates, of the complex interaction of gasses in the atmosphere and currents in the ocean, and of the deepest and most fundamental power of the atom.