Occupy this and that…

Occupying in the name of?

Couple of weeks ago I was touring Japan and focused on my mission to follow the footsteps of historical characters Murasaki Shikibu and William Adams. I read the newspapers regularly but skimmed past the stories about the Occupy Wall Street movement in favour of the radiation and renewable energy stories which are not surprisingly a particular preoccupation in Japan at the moment and also denote a very hopeful shift in priorities. I did note however the point was made that the Occupy Wall Street movement had attracted support from a broader community and not just the usual anti-establishment types. Unfortunately the sloganeering of the “counter-culture” was visible and every bit as predictable and mind numbing as that of the garbage-peddling corporate “establishment” these types convince themselves they’re in the process of toppling. It is a sad irony that sometimes a cause’s impact can be diluted or even diminished through a constituency that differentiates itself, marking it’s arrogance toward others and thus switching off the very people who need to be won over in order to advance the cause. Getting around calling ourselves “The 99%” demonstrates the same type of conceit John Howard did whenever he liked to tell us he spoke for “the silent majority”, only this latest slogan is laughably implausable (and yes I know the figure originates from the distribution of wealth but used in the context it is there’s an undeniable double-entendre). A more accurate guess would be that approximately 99% of people have not asked to be spoken for and a good number of them would resent it.

The cause spread to other cities in the US then to other parts of the world, including my country, and wherever it’s gone the unfortunate tang it leaves is just more of the old counter-culture routine that never got anywhere in the past. So we could be forgiven for speculating it will run out of puff, get bored and eventually go home having said and achieved essentially nothing new.

Out there in the suburbs however mums and dads and other plain people are among those calling for change. Neither the mass media’s penchant for 5-10 second grabs nor the counter-culture’s penchant for Che Guevara flags and indelicate slogans distills or articulates exactly what it is that has ordinary average folks riled up.

In my country we’ve mostly not yet felt the brunt of the global financial crisis. We are aware of the GFC in a broad sense but it’s hard to get a feel for it through the TV news. I have friends and family in the US however and the insecurity and loss of affluence is palpable, more than just a feeling. It manifests itself in so many ways in daily life – reduced activity and income at work, shuffling jobs to stay afloat, the dream of a higher education for your kid that seemed a real possibility a couple of years ago now a topic to be avoided, even postage to loved ones overseas suddenly prohibitively expensive. Real tangible every day stuff that disappoints, saddens and astounds people. Here in Oz I do sense a growing commentary that the cost of living is becoming noticeably more stressful.

On the macro-economic front developments in Europe are the big news currently. Back in 2008 when key players in the banking industry suddenly discovered they were no longer liquid, the genesis of what we call the GFC, Great Britain was the first country to move to take public funds, taxpayer money, and prop up the banks to keep them afloat. Other governments around the world followed suit, including of course Barrack Obama’s US administration. Yes, Barrack Obama took taxpayer money and handed it over to the banking industry, the machinations of which we are advised were responsible for creating the crisis. This was a necessary evil we were told because should the banks fail it would have dire consequences for all of us, the way our whole society works is dependent on the liquidity of the banks. Thank you the banks said, we will take the taxpayer’s money.

The French Government offered cheap capital to the country’s banks, at 1% interest. Like elsewhere the theory was this would make capital available for business and citizens to borrow money to drive the broader economy by building houses, buying and selling services and manufactures… But it didn’t happen. People instead tightened their belts, decided they didn’t need the second plasma TV, held off buying a home, wouldn’t take more risk in their businesses. The French banks being banks after all, decided instead to invest that cheap cash where they could get returns. Greek Government bonds were paying 14-15%. Sounds good – borrow money from the French taxpayer at 1% and get 15% return for it from the Greek taxpayer. Mind boggling in its simplicity.

Like much of the rest of the world economic activity in Greece floundered and the Greek Government’s speculation that it could actually pay those sort of returns turned out to be grossly optimistic. In recent weeks a new buzz phrase has appeared in discussion of a Greek bail-out “allowed to default in a controlled manner”. But what do these economists mean by ‘controlled’? Well, a bail out of the Greek Government includes not only ensuring funds are available to cover public sector salaries and services, but also bailing out the banks who would otherwise bear the brunt of the default. Did you catch that? So the taxpayer, not only in France but throughout the developed world, bankrolled the banks in response to the GFC in 2008. Now that that money has simply disappeared taxpayers across the EU are being asked to pick up the tab. Huh? Understandably some of those mums and dads literate enough to follow this are feeling like they’re being swindled to a historic degree. It’s creating a rift in the EU with the French Government demanding more for the banks and the German Government, contributing most of the funds, pushing for less. The compromise proposed yesterday has the Eurozone and the IMF calling on the banks to accept a 50% loss.

Back here in Oz not only crusty fringy anti-globalismists but plain old suburbanites do take note of the growing cost of living and the diminishing service and commitment they get from business starkly juxtaposed against growing profits and/or the greed of many elite business people as they take ever increasing executive salaries, bonuses and severance payouts. Telstra is but one example but an excellent case in point. Under Ziggy Switkowski and then Sol Trujillo the company’s value slid. The company lost market share for the simple reason it treated consumers and shareholders with an arrogant disregard. An explosion in the different types of products and services could not make up for the dive in commitment to and respect for the customer. Yet the executives who oversee such mindless short-termism are remunerated rapaciously and walk away when the brand has been trashed.

Ordinary people notice when their taxes are handed over to business interests and this practice is broader than just the current crisis in the finance industry. They do sense the irony in this in light of capitalist principles that guarantee in ordinary people’s small businesses if they lose liquidity the business ceases to exist and often along with it they lose homes, cars, and marriages. No-one suggests the Government – taxpayers should pick up the tab. They notice when the cost of things increases sharply and they notice when as consumers they are treated with disrespect. They notice when business elites take remuneration that is so dispropportionate that it can only be described as greed. They similarly notice when companies make stratospheric profits out of resources that belong to all of us yet seek to share the wealth only among the business elite.

I can’t help feeling though this movement will ultimately have no role in bringing it to an end. Short of an armed revolution change will only ever occur from within,… or if the situation simply becomes untennable. I think the insecurity many people feel is a sense that government and finance industry bail-outs are merely buying time and setting us up for an even harder fall when the system is finally utterly bankrupted, which we’re wondering may be inevitable because it’s hard to see how it can be sustainable. Eventually either society says ok let’s stop propping it up or society becomes incapable of propping it up. That’s the importance of the current debate in Europe around Greece and the French banks. You have to wonder if it might be better to let the whole thing collapse in on itself leaving no money to operate public services, no money for you and I to buy a home, but also no money for the Sol Trujillo’s of the world to pilfer. Maybe only that would truly result in renewal.









Six months on from the Tohoku Earthquake

Six months on…

Hatsue Yamaguchi says that people have changed since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11 this year. I don’t know in exactly what way she means but I heard reference to more people getting married now, something about ‘having someone’. Chizuru says she doesn’t detect this subtle change her mum refers to, and I’m not sure. I think I sense a sobriety among the Japanese that wasn’t there before. Perhaps the memory is still fresh enough of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake, of the suffering wreaked by the tsunami, the multiple magnitude 7plus quakes that followed, and the ongoing anxiety about what that radiation emanating from Fukushima really means.

The first physical sign I saw of the big quake was during a visit to Tokyo Disney. The pavement outside Maihama Station is up and down all over the place and the surface is a patchwork of temporary bitumen and the concrete paving tiles that once covered the area. The ground has dipped away heavily in between pylons and climbs upward around the foundations on which the pylons sit. The overall structure of large buildings and elevated train lines remained sound while the earth fell away around them.

Six months after the quake the television news still runs fresh stories about homes that have been shifted as the ground beneath them opened up. Again, homes themselves may be whole and intact, quite a contrast from the photos I saw out of Christchurch where like Australia brick-veneer is the norm and earthquakes bust them apart.

I watched a television programme the other day in which a guy climbed to various elevations on a Tohoku mountainside. He pointed out rock strata that had formed hundreds of millions of years ago and where they’d crumbled during the quake. In Australia after the Queensland floods this year, as tragic and heartbreaking as they were, insurance companies quibbled over the term “once in a hundred year event”, but such a distinction would sound absurd alongside “once in the history of the Earth” events – rock that was formed at the beginning of the Earth suddenly cracked into pieces.

Each day he Japan Times publishes a map on which concentric circles signify recorded radiation levels at intervals of distance around Fukushima. At the Iwate village office 40km Northwest of Fukushima radiation levels fluctuate around 2.040 to 2.090 microsieverts per hour while down in Tokyo readings are around 0.053 to 0.058. I’ve tried to compare this to normal Sydney levels but the information I’ve found doesn’t add up. In Sydney we’re apparently exposed to 2 millisieverts or 2,000 microsieverts per year. A quick calculation puts that at 0.228 microsieverts per hour or four times as much as currently experienced in Tokyo.

Last Friday controversially the exclusion zone outside the 20km radius of Fukushima was lifted. The five local municipal governments in the area are not supportive, not so much out of concern for the ongoing radiation levels out of the Fukushima plant but due to the complications this creates for their decontamination planning. Radioactive topsoil and vegetation measuring 28,790,000 cubic metres for example needs to be removed. Exactly what’s to be done with this radioactive soil is unclear.

Every day brings new reports about TEPCO’s ongoing struggle. The compensation bill is expected to be in the region of ¥4 trillion or about A$53.5 billion. The company hopes to be able to re-open its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata prefecture to avoid slipping into negative net worth. However it appears much of the compensation bill will be underwritten by an already financially beleaguered Japanese government. Cancelling the company’s debt had been mooted and rejected. The company itself is talking about taking measures such as trimming an apparently top-heavy personnel structure and reducing the company pensions of both current and former employees. There’s talk of executives heads rolling but it’s hard to imagine what that will achieve when the problem is probably the result of engineering decisions made almost half a century ago.

Chizuru related to me a story from a local women’s magazine about differing views on the radiation risk. In a number of households mother and children have moved to the deep South of the country, in particular Okinawa, while dad remains in Tokyo or in the North for work. There are those apparently who think separating the family in such a way is an over-reaction, and there are those who can’t believe that others would put their children at such risk being so close to the radioactivity.

Today I read that 130 children from the Fukushima prefecture evacuation zone had been screened and 10 of them found to have irregular thyroids.

We also noticed the air-conditioning is turned down on trains and in other locations compared to how it once was. Fukushima is not the only power plant non-operational after the quake so electricity consumption has been curtailed.

In general people are sceptical about the Government’s and the Company’s reassurances. Since March I’ve found particularly striking the mistrust toward the authorities on the matter.

Kamakura Beach sign

Sign on the beach at Kamakura

Stories about alternative and renewable energy sources figure more prominently in the Japanese media than back home in Australia. Wind power is complicated by the fact the best locations sit on the West coast. The national electricity grid developed along the higher populated Eastern seaboard and on the basis of fossil fuel and nuclear power generation, and the companies involved in those industries have been protective. In order to take advantage of the better areas for wind generation substantial expensive reconfiguration of the grid is required. Also these better locations for wind generation often sit within wilderness areas adding all sorts of considerations, such as the effect on migratory birds. An interesting proposition is to develope technology for offshore wind power generation. Wind generation is set to expand, but even those spruiking it are talking about it supplying no more than 10% of the national requirement by mid century.

Every day there’s a story or more about some renewable energy source or another. Small localised hydro and thermal power generation success stories exist. Bryce went to a museum for the Japanese space programme and he detected sensitivity about their validity as an expensive service in a cash-strapped environment. They were at pains to point out their role in putting satellites in space that provide excellent foresight on weather. No mention of pioneering missions to Mars – the big pitch is the possibility of extraterrestrial solar power generation!

Japan’s largest labour organisation, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation – RENGO, announced a rethink of their previous support for nuclear energy.

Like the announcement by Germany after the Tohoku earthquate and tsunami that they would be abandoning nuclear energy altogether, I find this all somehow heartening. No runs are on the board yet but it means there’s been a fundamental shift where it matters and national resources will be put into the development of newer cleaner energy sources. In nowhere is it more demonstrably needed than in Japan. While the most carbon intensive culture is said to belong to Australia and the US I can’t imagine a place more attuned to consumption than Japan. This country is a striking mixture of the old and the new, and in twenty years of association with the place I’ve come to the conclusion this is an outcome of a culture that has developed over millenia in an environment susceptible to constant destruction through typhoon and earthquake, and thus accustomed to constant renewal. At the same time obviously it is a culture with an extraordinary reverence and continuity with its past – a theme I’m enjoying exploring here currently and will share on this blog in the near future.

Toilet seats are still heated. Umbrellas, pushbikes, mobile phones and even cheap motorcycles are still treated like disposable consumer items in the way that spring water bottles are in Australia. Sobriety maybe, but austerity, no I don’t think so. Hatsue thinks in time things will get back to the way they were. Again, I’m not sure but I’m also not sure I would mind if they didn’t.