Friday, April 22, 2011

japan, oil, and the fragility of globalization (urbanization)

The Tyee | 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.