Meeting forces and scales of the unknowable
03.16.2011, 3:00 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

© Seawall Protection at Enoshima

If we continue forward without sensing the monumental changes that have been triggered by events in Japan this week, we will miss what is the emergent edge of who humans might now become and how we might inhabit this planet— into the far future.

In minutes, tectonics near the Tōhoku region triggered forces that continue to disassemble and reassemble human lives and senses of reality and safety on a planetary-scale.

The massive 9.0 earthquake in Japan also triggered several notable geologic shifts:
Days are now 1.8 microseconds shorter.
The Earth’s axis has shifted by 6.8 inches.
Global positioning stations close to the epicenter jumped eastward by 13 feet.

We here at FOP have been veered off our usual course by the recents events in Japan. Daily life has fallen to the wayside as we direct our attention at the unimaginable as it continues to unfold. We’ve come to accept the reality of our interrelatedness with the eventual outcomes of this string of tension-filled days. We consider the events unfolding in Japan as demarcating a pivot point in our work and practice here at FOP.

Elevated Platform  Okushiri Island, Japan, image: International Tsunami Information Center

For several years, as a way of attempting to grasp the magnitude of the nuclear, we’ve made work and written about the convergence of the human and the geologic.  Still, it’s been a struggle this week to imagine languages, actions, and new understandings that are up to meeting the scale of the events now unfolding in Japan.  Yet, what becomes thinkable and doable in response to these events cannot be overestimated.

What is now taking place within and dispersing far beyond the Fukushima power plants is a fact, not a political position.  It is a bare material reality, now irrevocably moving around the globe. The materials involved, contained, uncontained, and now uncontainable, remain dangerous for spans of time that we humans can’t yet imagine.  And up until last week, many of us hadn’t tried.  The nuclear realities that have accumulated over the past 70 years are leaking into everyone’s present tense. We’re now comprehending that the nuclear is not just another form of “energy,” “technology,” or “waste.” It’s suddenly much harder to ignore that human technologies and the earth’s geo-materialities can, and do, act back upon us in wildly unpredictable ways.

It’s now soberingly clear that the effects of our tools, technologies, designs and plans can ramify into deep geologic futures, passing directly through and dramatically rearranging human life along the way.  Architectures, infrastructures—and artworks—will risk being irrelevant at best, dangerous at worst, if their designers and makers don’t take the newly gathered information into account and recalibrate.

To us, it seems there’s an opportunity available to re-imagine the assumptions, materials, processes, designs and infrastructures that we will use to meet future geologic events from this point forward.  Such events include the failure of Kamaishi’s massive, $1.5 billion seawall which provided the city little real protection from the tsunami. Fishermen were among the fiercest critics of the seawall, complaining that they need to see the sea from their homes.  Other critics have said that “the seawalls reduce coastal residents’ understanding of the sea and their ability to determine when to flee by looking for clues in changing wave patterns.”

Nuclear infrastructures are predicated on high-security and vigilant command and control. They allow little room for error.  They are the opposite of an open, dynamic and responsive system.  Their locked doors and fenced waste storage areas repel people, allowing no way for humans to scale our senses of ourselves in relation to the time and force of the nuclear, especially during emergencies, and as aging systems continue to fail and create as yet unmanageable legacies of radioactive waste.

It seems imperative that the fields of design, engineering, architecture, urban planning and disaster preparation turn—en masse–toward creating more fluid, responsive systems at the conjuncture of the geologic and the human.  Such systems could assist humans in becoming vitally responsive and informed actants in geo-events such as those unfolding in Japan.  Such a turn will take a massive redirection of resources, energy, imagination and creativity toward approaches that have been otherwise ignored, unhelpfully politicized, or thought to be too challenging up to this point (for one proposed start toward that turn, see the quote below).

This week’s events in Japan have exceeded humans’ best attempts to anticipate and temper the impact of the geologic on a highly technologized daily life.  In the wake of our shattered best attempts, potential new directions to pursue have opened. And new specifications for designs yet to be invented have been necessitated. We now have the urgent opportunity to recalibrate our infrastructures, communities, and imaginations to a new scale–one that affords humans the time, space, and ability to move responsively and in relation to the non-human scale of geo-forces in play on this planet.

image, smudge 2011, download graphic


From today’s The New Republic:

“Late last year, two engineering professors, Mark Jacobson of Stanford and Mark Delucchi of University of California Davis, published two papers in Energy Policy offering their own detailed analysis of how the world could get 100 percent of its electricity from existing renewables—mostly solar and wind—by 2050. The task would be staggering. We would need nearly four million five-megawatt wind turbines—i.e., turbines twice as big as those currently on the market. (China just built its first five-megawatter last year.) Plus 90,000 large-scale solar farms—for reference, there are only about three dozen in existence now. Plus 1.7 billion three-kilowatt rooftop solar systems—that is, one for every four people on the planet. But it’s doable. The main challenge, the authors found, would be mining enough rare-earth metals—like neodymium—for all those electric motors. So, again, mind-blowingly hard, but it’s at least possible to go carbon-free without nuclear (or algae). What’s more, the world wouldn’t have to pay that much more for energy than it does today.”

2 Comments so far
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Saul Griffith performed a top-level calculation of what it would take to go renewable/carbon neutral, similar to Delucchi and Jacobson, but much more geared at nonspecialists, for a PopTech talk in 2008. Highly recommended.

Comment by Stuart Candy

[…] Meeting forces and scales of the unknowable […]

Pingback by There is no Zero: Continuous Remix in the Geologic City (Geologic City report #11) « FOP

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