Haiti, Fukushima, Chernobyl: What do we learn from disasters?

It is now two years since the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent triple meltdown at the nuclear plant in Fukushima.  Sarah Phillips, an anthropologist who has spent most of her professional life studying Chernobyl and the Ukraine, has a very thoughtful piece on how similar the two nuclear disasters turn out to be.  It’s a long article, so here’s the tl;dr:


“Fukushima is Chernobyl. Independent of the system (Japanese, Soviet), nuclear technology requires disregard for the public, misleading statements, and obfuscation in multiple domains (medicine, science and technology, governance). As anthropologist Hugh Gusterson notes, “The disaster at Fukushima has generated cracks in what we might call the ‘social containment vessels’ around nuclear energy—the heavily scientized discourses and assumptions that assure us nuclear reactors are safe neighbors.” Comparing the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima shows that “peaceful” nuclear technology is anything but.”


This week, in Maternowska’s Reproducing Inequities, we have also been reading about Haiti and the spectacular failures of development organizations to effect significant or lasting change for poor Haitian women.  It has now been more than three years since Haiti’s massive 2010 earthquake, and life for many Haitians is not better.  The cholera epidemic that began in the country in October 2010 continues to claim Haitian lives.  The same patterns Maternowska identifies for Haiti’s reproductive health and family planning policy have played out in the wake of Haiti’s natural and unnatural disasters: a lot of money spent very unwisely, and then a discourse that blames Haitians and “culture” for the lack of results.  We are left with the sense that Haiti, like other regions of extreme poverty, is hopelessly undevelopable, and so funding is limited to basic humanitarian interventions addressing immediate needs, rather than addressing the underlying structural factors that relegate Haiti to perpetual vulnerability to the next disaster.


Paul Farmer and Catherine Maternowska both identify this sense of hopelessness for what it is: a disavowal, a racist cop-out, and a justification for continuing the same development strategies that fail to address the actual long-term needs of poor people, despite overwhelming evidence of their inadequacy.  The real tragedy that emerges from reading Maternowska, or following Farmer’s tremendous success in the country with his clinic and with Partners in Health, is the recognition that developing Haiti and alleviating poverty is not actually that difficult.

One thought on “Haiti, Fukushima, Chernobyl: What do we learn from disasters?

  1. Just a month ago, there was a partial roof collapse at the Chernobyl site. (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/chernobyl-radiation-unaffected-roof-collapse-article-1.1263037). The officials claim that the accident did not cause change in radiation levels is a great reminder that phrase ‘Chernobyl forever’ actually does mean…forever.
    This April will mark 27 years since Chernobyl catastrophe. Currently new sarcophagus is being constructed over the plant. Reason? Radioactive chain reaction is not easily stopped once it ‘gets away’ from the controlled environment..of human hands. In this case some sources say, Chernobyl site might continue to be (radio)active for 100,000 more years. I hope the building material that is being used in the construction of the new ‘tomb’ is… at least time proof. (http://youtu.be/3GSzgA0CxWk). When the catastrophe took place (4/26/1896), USSR remained silent, however the air spoke loudly. Radioactive cloud, carried by wind, set off radioactive sensors in many european countries, including Poland. In 1986 Poland was still ‘colonized’ by its Eastern neighbor. Polish officials, after finding out from British sources about the nature of the accident, and against the limits to their agency, took actions to protect Poles from extraordinary levels of radiation. Between April 29-30, 1986, 18.5 million citizens, mostly children up to age 17, were given iodine to lower radiation effects on thyroid. Farmers were asked to keep animals off the fields, and babies were fed artificial milk. It was… 3 days after the actual accident.
    What do we learn? Chernobyl Diaries (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1991245/)is a great example how removed from reality things can get. This movie unintentionally transforms Chernobyl into event that took place… there and then, or perhaps never (?) (It also left some wondering if Hollywood has gone too far: http://altheasherlock.hubpages.com/hub/Chernobyl-Diaries-Has-Hollywood-Gone-Too-Far)
    Maternowska writes on this problematic issue of distance. How removed from reality spheres of power are. How economy and politics, residing behind the impermeable wall, struggle with realizing and taking responsibility for creation and/or maintaining exclusion, poverty, and abandonment zones. How policies activate chain reaction of misunderstanding and bureaucracy with ability to nave negative effect on environment and its inhabitants.
    Chernobyl, Fukushima, Haiti are intimately connected to this impermeable wall and our inability to deconstruct it.

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