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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 8/7/13

Fukushima: Consensus Trance and Our Right to Know

By Julian Gresser, Esq.  Posted by carol wolman, MD (about the submitter)       (Page 2 of 4 pages) Become a premium member to see this article and all articles as one long page.   3 comments
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Diagnosis--Consensus Trance and its Consequences

The Harvard trained psychiatrist Dr. Carol Wolman describes the phenomenon of the public's "numbness" around the nuclear industry. The root cause appears to be fear and denial: the senses are so overtaxed and confused, our consciousness simply closes down. But there is a related process also at work. It is called "consensus trance." The most famous historical example is the account by Captain John Cook when his man-of-war set anchor in Botany Bay. According to Cook's journals the local inhabitants ignored the great ship resting before them and continued to enjoy their evening meals as though nothing unusual had happened. According to psychologists the natives experienced a "negative hallucination": a man-of-war was so outside their normal experience, they collectively were unable to see it. Their eyes may have observed, but their brains could not process what they saw. Is Fukushima so beyond our experience we can not bear to contemplate its consequences?

Consensus trance occurs when an entire community becomes unconscious and, figuratively, goes to sleep. The trance is consensual because each person bargains in this way: One says, "I will accept your version of reality, if you will accept mine." The other counters with her or his story. And so they conspire. When both parties are numb, the trance becomes viral. We want to believe that Fukushima is a far away, local, and containable Japanese problem. Surely, it will never affect us. In consensus trance we sacrifice our creative powers, including our ability to imagine future possibilities, to invent effective remedies and to plan wisely. 

A Different Perspective

Although vilified by the media, TEPCO is also an isolated and tragic figure. In the terrible days since the earthquake TEPCO has never once faltered, never surrendered. Hundreds of TEPCO employees remain at Fukushima, daily exposing themselves to levels of radiation beyond regulatory standards; sacrificing themselves for their company and their country, knowing they will surely die from cancer and other diseases. If such a disaster had occurred one hundred and fifty years ago, the responsible samurai would have committed mass seppuku. The heroism of TEPCO's engineers and other officials is the modern equivalent. Except, unlike New York's 9/11 firefighters who are honored in the U.S. as true national heroes, TEPCO's samurai are reduced to a statistic.

The situation at Fukushima is further complicated by another process which the writer Rebecca Solnit describes in A Paradise Built in Hell. She calls it "elitist panic." Under this scenario the public authorities panic by perceiving the endangered public as the adversary. Rather than reaching out for assistance, the government authorities and the responsible companies hide vital information and waste precious time in shifting blame and planning scenarios to ward off the public. According to Solnit, this same pattern has been evident in every major disaster from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the Halifax explosion of 1917, Katrina, and 9/11. We witness it today in the Boston Marathon bombing.

In Japan the behavior is further complicated by powerful cultural factors. It is likely that TEPCO's senior management and the Japanese regulatory authorities believe Fukushima is first of all Japan's responsibility (sekinin). Moreover, it is considered shameful to ask for international assistance--especially if what you are discovering is too terrible to disclose. Elitist panic operates on another fundamental premise: full disclosure of the facts--including the fact of your own ignorance (also considered shameful under such circumstances)--will cause pandemonium. But the historical record confirms the exact opposite: in every example, Solnit demonstrates that the dominant behavior of an informed public is generosity, compassion, and selflessness. Calamity, it seems, invokes the better angels of our nature.

Thus, disempowerment is reciprocal. The public is kept ignorant; but TEPCO and the Japanese government's position is also tenuous. By isolating themselves, they are deprived of their best potential ally--an imaginative, engaged, and innovative public. This insight may point the way to a solution.

Prescription--Empowerment & Our Fundamental Right to Know  

The Right to Know as a Fundamental Human Right--A useful first step toward empowerment is for all of us to realize that we, the public, already possess a legal right to know. We don't have to ask for it. No new legal action is required to affirm it. This essential human right includes the right to be informed and forewarned about a present, specific, and unfolding disaster, and the correlative right to take immediate, reasonable, and effective emergency management measures. In legal terms the right to know is a composite of human and environmental rights which are well established under international law and most national legal systems. It is implied in Articles 3, 19, and 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and recognized in numerous UN Environmental Declarations since the Stockholm Conference of 1971. It has been codified and included as part of an environmental right (J. kankyoken) in Japanese, Chinese, and European Community statutes and ordinances. It has frequently been cited by the courts in these jurisdictions.

Foresight--There is a subtle, less well understood relationship between the right to know and the legal doctrine of "forseeability." Most advanced legal systems impose a duty of care and liability on those who unleash harms when the consequences of their actions are foreseeable. The Japanese courts delivered a pioneering precedent in the famous Yokkaichi air pollution case that held that the burden of proof shifts when the plaintiffs were able to show by experimental, clinical, and epidemiological evidence that the harms originated from a specific source, involved specific toxic agents, and followed a specific pathway, entering their bodies and causing their illnesses. The more the public exercises its right to know, the more comprehensive and accurate the data base that will be compiled, and the clearer the picture that will emerge of future harms that can be foreseen, avoided, or at least mitigated.

Safecast--Joi Ito's Global Open Source Initiative for Radiation Monitoring and Innovation ( Safecast is a marvelous outlet for the latest information, ideas, and innovations. The Initiative is also a seedbed to test the next generation of 3-D printing technologies such as 2-Bot's platform which can produce 3-dimensional renditions of Geographic Information System (GIS) to reconstruct and analyze the site-specific Fukushima relationships of reactors, land, water tables, and ocean. The presentation of the physical data in tangible physical form will create a powerful stimulus and feedback loop for continuous innovation.

Thousands of Samurai Explorers-- What if thousands of samurai explorers--Japanese citizens and their compatriots around the world--begin to learn a fresh way of innovating around "wicked" problems by "inter-tidal thinking"? (Intertidal thinking overlays and interconnects domains of knowledge.) What if they can harness the latent power of social media and crowd sourcing? As cyber-advocates they will learn how to couple hard science with the power of chance and synchronicity from where most of science's and humanity's greatest breakthroughs derive. What if they have access to optoelectronic and other advanced computing which will analyze billions of bytes of information in seconds? What if by aligning their efforts they are able to cultivate their innate human capacity to peer into the future, but unlike Cassandra, they possess the skills to effect change? What if they were to align and focus their collective capabilities with laser precision on the critical challenges of Fukushima?

A Smart "Explorers' Wheel"--It is now possible to create an online social network where concerned citizens will not only learn from each other, but also where the platform itself is intelligent. In other words, the Wheel itself becomes a powerful ally, supporting the mission of its participants, answering their inquiries, harvesting and disseminating their stories, gathering and analyzing data, and providing tools and training? A Smart Fukushima Explorers' Wheel will rapidly become the catalyst and epicenter of innovation.

Joint Congressional and Parliamentary Hearings--Dr. Carol Wolman has organized a petition to the Congressional representatives of the western states calling for hearings on the effects of pollution from Fukushima on human health and the environment within the U.S. The petition is rapidly building momentum. Legislative oversight is one of the most effective responses in a civil society to the people's right to know. Various senators have already expressed concern. Senator Ron Wyden (D. Oregon) returned from a fact-finding mission to Fukushima in April 2012. Senator Barbara Boxer (D. California) has an established environmental track record. Dr. Wolman's petition presents these and other western senators with a unique opportunity to create a precedent: Joint Hearings between their Congressional Committee(s) and the Japanese Diet. Under this process both legislative branches would collaborate. The Committee(s) would call expert witnesses, take testimonies, and assemble a record which will educate their members, constituents, and the public around the world. Concerned Japanese Diet members could reciprocate by inviting their American colleagues to Japan. Because joint hearings are novel, they will rivet the world's attention on Fukushima and catalyze innovations.

Effective Relief--The Japanese government and perhaps other governments need to designate the victims of Fukushima as "pollution victims" who will receive immediate and adequate relief. There is an important legal distinction here. The term "relief" places the emphasis on caring for the sick and wounded; the term "compensation" carries with it the legal conclusion of responsibility and liability. An administrative system for relief finesses the complex legal issues of causation or negligence. The victims are relieved of the burden of proving these essential elements in a court of law before they can secure financial and other assistance. As a mediator for the situation, my intention is to "hold" the center, not to prejudge what will be in due course a judicial determination. Few people, however, will reasonably dispute the need for immediate care and compassionate relief.

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Carol S. Wolman, MD is a psychiatrist in Northern California. A lifelong peace activist, she is helping to distribute a Peace Plan for the Holy Land- email her for a copy. She also a film producer with Paradise Cove Productions, currently (more...)

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