AT 2:55PM on 13 March a 30 foot high Tsunami struck Japan, the waves crashing over flood barriers and in some areas reaching as far as six miles in land. It was caused by an earthquake which measured 8.9 on the Richter scale that occurred out at sea 10 minutes earlier. The earthquake was roughly the equivalent of 474 megatons of dynamite. It was so powerful it moved Japan 13 feet eastward and shifted the Earth’s axis.
The earthquake and tsunami led to a huge loss of life. Whole towns were swept away and thousands of people are still missing. It stuck Japan so hard, that it will leave a scar on the country for a generation to come. In some parts food is running low and in Tokyo there are rolling blackouts as the government tries to preserve the power supply.
Escalation of crisis
But the natural disaster escalated dramatically as the nuclear power station at Fukushima, as well as reactors at other sites, were badly damaged by the tsunami.
Two explosions and fires at all four reactors led to an emergency and evacuation as engineers battled to stop a total meltdown. The whole world is anxiously watching events at the Fukushima plant.
The 590,000 refugees from the flooding were joined by another 210,000 who have been evacuated from a 30-mile radius of the stricken plant. Some people began to flee Tokyo when radiation levels there rose despite calls for calm from the government.
After several days of fire fighting the emergency crews were reduced to dropping water on the damaged reactors from helicopters to try and prevent more fires breaking out.
It is instructive to see how capitalism’s journalistic servants look at such a catastrophe. CNBC journalist Larry Kudlow exclaimed that “The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that.” His co-anchor added, “This is good news for the US economy.”
Satire itself is disarmed faced with such a response.
But leaving common decency aside it is clear why they are concerned – Japan’s stock market plunged by over 10% when it reopened after the disaster. Fears of the long term damage to the economy caused massive selling of shares as companies closed down their operations.
Now the question is who will fund and who will benefit from the reconstruction? The cost of rebuilding the damaged areas will run into billions of dollars. The Bank of Japan has pumped serious money into the economy to keep it moving, anticipating more problems further down the line.
Already Japanese traders have been selling foreign currency to secure more Yen, predicting that companies and insurance agencies will be paying out more money in the coming weeks and months.
Currency speculation is a real fear, so much so that the Prime Minister has issued a stern warning that he would not tolerate any stock market profiteering from the catastrophe.
Even without the cost of reconstruction, Japan’s gross-debt-to-GDP ratio may reach 228% this year. Its economy has been stagnant for many years and it was badly hit during the credit crunch in 2008.
Free market exposed
The neoliberal ethos that the free market will solve all the world’s problems is cruelly exposed during such events when in fact the state is forced to intervene to save lives.
In poor countries like Haiti the government has very few resources and has to rely on foreign intervention, which often includes military forces, to assist disaster relief. But these relief efforts always come with strings attached, either more debt or lucrative reconstruction contracts for imperialist companies.
This catastrophe shows control of nuclear power must be taken out of the hands of capitalist firms. There is no “absolute” level of safety that could prevent a “worst possible accident”. Nuclear plants must be decommissioned as quickly as possible. We need an energy plan based on renewables that will allow a planned shift away from fossil fuels and atomic energy.
The capitalists are incapable of this. So far they have not even been able to agree a global plan for effective carbon emission reduction as the Copenhagen conference fiasco showed, so how can we expect them to implement a global plan to shift energy to safer forms? The reason they can’t do it is the profit motive that drives all economic decision making in their system. Also the division of the capitalist world into a patchwork of rival nation states hampers serious attempts to effect the international changes needed.
In Japan the fight is now to limit the damage, rebuild homes and the environment at the expense of the profiteers not the people. Around the world the fight is on to stop building new nuclear power stations, to decommission and to open records to inspection. Energy companies and suppliers should be nationalised without compensation under workers’ control and a plan for safe and sustainable energy drawn up.
This struggle points to the need to overcome capitalism and replace it with a democratically planned economy. Fukushima and the tsunami found capitalism guilty of gross negligence. Only when production and distribution serve the needs of the great majority will humanity be able to prepare for natural disasters and minimise their impact.