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Japan, Oil and the Fragility of Globalization

'Energy and Equity' starts today -- Andrew Nikiforuk's new weekly Tyee column about oil, energy and civilization.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 14 Apr 2011 |

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning Calgary journalist and author whose new column for The Tyee, "Energy and Equity," runs every Thursday. Read his previous work in The Tyee here.

image atom
Explosion at Fukishima nuclear plant in March. Addiction to oil paved way for reliance on nuclear energy.

[Editor's note: Andrew Nikiforuk's term as Tyee Writer in Residence is finished, but his incisive writing stays home right here, as today begins his new weekly column. Read more about "Energy and Equity" in the sidebar that accompanies this story.]

"No society can have a population that is hooked on progressively larger numbers of energy slaves and whose members are also autonomously active." -- Ivan Illich

Sometimes it takes an earthquake followed by tsunami accompanied by a nuclear meltdown to catch people's attention.

Improbable events not only make the world go around but expose what is rotten.

And I suspect the Great Sendai Earthquake will go down in the annals of human history as just one of a series of unfortunate events that helped to illuminate the world's downward energy spiral.

Or as the Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe wisely put it: "Japanese history has entered a new phase."

Although much media interest has now focused on the proverbial risks of nuclear power (a subject I'll atomize later), the quake really laid bare the fragilities of an oil-fueled economy that has peaked.

Japan's familiar energy path

The Catholic theologian Ivan Illich once noted (and yes, he is the inspiration for this eclectic column) that societies that consume large amounts of energy (and especially imported energy) ultimately lose their flexibility and robustness to a web of authoritarian complexity such as the Tokyo Electricity Corporation. It is, afterall, the world's fourth largest utility and a consortium of liars to boot.

After the quake, Japan's big energy dilemma remains the same: how can a nation unsustainably fashioned by a flood of cheap oil (less than $20) 40 years ago, reboot or rebuild now that oil exceeds a $100 a barrel?

This arresting drama has a science fiction-like quality because Japan reflects both our petroleum pasts and our energy futures. It is the world's petroleum everyman. In many ways Japan's fate is our collective fate.

By any measure oil, probably the island's longest Kabuki performance, has transformed Japan more than any of Mother Nature's regular energizers including typhoons, fires, volcanoes and yes, rousing earthquakes.

Yet the magnitude of the Japanese quake was a reminder that the Green Gal not only bats last and hardest but whenever she damn well pleases.

In real terms the Sendai earthly adjustment generated about 476 megatons of energy. (The Russians exploded the world's biggest hydrogen bomb, "Big Ivan," in 1961 and it contained 50 megatons of power.) So the Sendai shake-up was equivalent to a man-made underwater nuclear storm created by 10 of the world's largest hydrogen bombs.

The megatons released by the quake, of course, impressed YouTube watchers. It shifted the entire island of Japan by 2.4 metres and lowered the coastline by a meter. It also moved the earth's axis several centimeters and shortened the length of the day.

The tectonic rattling created giant waves that swept more than 10,000 people and homes out to sea and destroyed most of the energy infrastructure of northeastern Japan including harbors, airports and refineries. Even Tokyo's iconic electronic blackboards have stopped flickering.

But this sudden devastation is almost modest compared to the slow-moving Godzilla of petroleum. For nearly 50 years Japan has gobbled oil in order to build a highly complex consumer culture where Mecha-toilets wash, dry and even perfume your privates like Roman slaves.

Japan, third biggest oil user

Even today the oil-less country remains the world's third largest importer of petroleum at 4 million barrels a day. (That's double Canada's tar sands production.) All in all it gets nearly 50 per cent of its primary energy needs from oil, which account for nearly a third of all exports in value. About 90 per cent of these barrels hail from the Mideast, where petro states are experiencing a series of democratic tremors.

Japan's extreme dependence on crude explains why an astute and clever nation built 55 nuclear facilities on the Ring of Fire during the oil shocks of the 1970s. This highly subsidized form of atomic gambling used to provide 30 per cent of the nation's power and dominated the politics of the nation's 10 regional electrical monopolies. The investment also explains why the country has the largest national debt of almost any major economic superpower other than the United States.

But Japan's oil addiction and nuclear woes has also shown the world what the energy status quo doesn't want ordinary people to see: the social limits of growing energy consumption.

A petro-fueled boom

Japan's oil story, which economists once dubbed "the Japanese miracle," reads a lot like the modern Chinese boom. Before the petroleum age, Japan ran on rice, peasants and human labor. The majority of the people lived in country villages. Most importantly, the island's population never climbed above 25 million.

But fossil fuels broke all previous chains and taboos. Although the population boom started in the 1900s with coal, it really accelerated with cheap oil in the 1950s. Just two decades later Japan became the 10th most populated place on earth with 125 million people. Rural migrants arrived in booming cities where they traded in their traditions, oxen and family ties for "the three C's": a car, a cooler and a colour television.

Incredibly, Japan's oil miracle concentrated 79 million Japanese or 70 per cent of the population in 209 complex urban centers. The world now knows what an earthquake and tsunami can make of such oil-drenched hubris.

But cheap oil did more than concentrate power and people. Oil allowed Japan, a nation with few resources, to import oodles of raw goods and turn them into electronic gadgets and cars for global export. The more oil that Japan consumed, the higher its GDP rose. At one point it boasted the second highest GDP in the world proving, once again, that economic growth is all about oil consumption.

Thanks to surplus profits generated by its oil miracle, Japan built speed trains, factories and bridges, and hosted the Olympics in the 1960s. Whenever the pollution got unbearable, people just wore gas masks to work.

The island also got addicted to "buy" recommendations and automobiles. The famous economist Hirofumi Uzawa outlined the social costs by noting that between 1966 and 1975 careless drivers killed more than 10,000 people a year.

Oil, too, changed the Japanese diet. Out went locally grown rice, vegetables and fish and in came imported meat, fat and grains. Today Japan is the least self-sufficient of any industrial nation. Without oil-drenched imports from China, Australia, Canada and the United States, the Japanese would starve. Or be forced to live like 19th century Irishmen on potatoes.

In 2008 the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries produced a lively animated feature about Japan's food insecurity. It portrays the corrosive power of oil with child-like clarity. The film noted that Japanese consumers, the world's largest net importers of food, still threw out more edible stuff each year than what "the entire world" contributed to food aide.

By the 1980s Japan Inc. looked like it was going to take over the world, empty the oceans of fish, and monopolize many of the world's resources. Tokyo even set itself up as world's third largest financial centre.

The tectonic shift in oil prices

But oil's miraculous powers peaked about 15 years ago. One of the world's most energy efficient nations found it couldn't squeeze much more out of a barrel. As the population aged (a fifth of the Japanese are boomers over the age of 65) and the cost of oil imports grew dearer, the economy stagnated. In 2009 Japan GDP's shrank 15 per cent and oil consumption declined by nearly a million barrels a day.

James Howard Kunstler, the social critic, has described the phenomenon nicely: "a decline in the primary energy resource used by an industrial society portends a decline in living standards, which can be expressed in an economy, for instance, by people having less money, or by people having lots of money that is increasingly worthless."

The New York Times calls this process "Japanification." The middle class no longer flies to Hawaii to buy Gucci bags. They've also traded in their German cars for cheaper Japanese models. The national government now spends a quarter of all taxes on paying interest on the national energy debt. The young, known as herbivores (soushoku danshi or "grass eating men"), live modestly in micro houses, take long walks, shun sex, chat on the Internet and don't spend much.

Economists, a professional class shaped by the illusion of endless cheap oil, disparage this generation as "consumption haters" and estimate their frugality has cost the economy $420 billion.

Meanwhile the Japanese government banked on nuclear power as the country's best replacement for increasingly expensive fossil fuels.

Waking up to nuclear nightmare

Despite a string of scandals the atomic behemoth sucked money away from renewables (Japan used to be a solar leader) and cemented a sort of energy inertia. Even the country's 2010 Basic Energy Plan called for the construction of nine new nuclear plants and promised a new economic miracle: a global nuclear export industry. But the earthquake and Fukushima meltdown probably ended that crazy dream.

So Japan is now running on empty. Imported oil not only grows more costly by the day but also buys diminishing economic returns. To pay for imported oil or fund its anointed substitute, nuclear energy, Japan now cultivates a hellish debt load that analysts call a ticking time bomb.

With the world's oldest population, Japan no longer has the workforce to rebuild. In fact Japan's oil-fueled miracle probably ended before the earthquake.

In a 2009 lecture the economist Uzawa painted the true picture without mentioning oil by name: "The culture of original human society prevented the depletion of natural resources by means of a dialogue with nature and accumulated knowledge about the natural environment within social norms designed for the survival of the society, and the culture (social system) also included transmission to the next generation."

Unlike many oil-driven cultures the Japanese will now fall back on traditions of resilience. The Zen masters knew about the impermanence of all earthly things and the inexhaustible beauty of nature. The 12th century philosopher Kamo no Chomei once advised that "If you have to go anywhere, go on your own feet. It may be trying, but not so much so as the bother of horses and carriages. Everyone with a body has two servants, his hands and feet, and they will serve his will exactly.”

Japan's power elite is now staggering. Perhaps a few of its oil and nuclear members will take up walking and clear their thinking.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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