“Our Friend the Atom” and He is Us

One idea that I’ve seen here and there in discussions of the nuclear emergency in Japan goes like this: “Why the coverage of the nukes? After all, thousands have already died from the earthquake and tsunami, 100s of thousands are homeless, and whole towns have been wiped away. All that damage far exceeds anything so far caused by those collapsed plants and any damage likely to be caused by them. Why not more coverage of the big story?”

The question, I believe, is a good one. And the answer, I suspect, goes like this: The earthquake and the tsunami were caused by Nature. We can take preventive measures, but we can’t predict or control them (though we’re working on prediction). Those atomic plants, however, they are Us. To say we can’t control them is to say that we can’t control ourselves. If we can’t control ourselves, are we any better than animals?

The issue of control is crucial. The difference between an atomic explosion and an atomic power plant is one of control: WE CONTROL what happens in the power plant. We can turn it on, turn it off, and make it go faster or slower. It does our bidding. Of course, it also creates dangerous radiation, which we must control. If we don’t, the radiation causes disease, cancer, mutations, strange unnatural beings, monsters (Gojira).

Back in the 1950s, when the USA and the USSR were one-upping each other, missile for missile and nuke for nuke, we were confident in our ability to control the atom for peaceful purposes. Why? Because Uncle Walt told us so. Early in 1957 Walt Disney televised a program, Our Friend the Atom, in which he made the case for peaceful uses of atomic energy. The atom, so Disney’s myth went, is like the genie in that old Arabian story:

atom genie1

It threatened to kill the fisherman, who then tricked the genie back into the bottle:

atom genie2

And now that we’ve got control over it, it will do our bidding and give us endless power at low cost with no mess:

atom genie3

atom genie4

Alas, it’s just a myth. The bottle’s busted. The genie’s always leaking out. It’s out of control.

We’re out of control.

Will this crisis prompt us to a new mythology, a new way to apprehend our place in the world? For that’s what’s a stake as we watch these events unfold: How do we make peace with the world?

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