Tuesday, March 15, 2011


The ancient Greeks called it ‘hubris’ – the belief that individuals and humanity as a whole were equal to, or greater than, the gods; that we could on our own, ignoring and not heeding powers we know to be greater than ourselves, live good and safe lives. Hubris is a kind of pride that for the Greeks, always led to a tragic fall. To live in harmonious balance with the forces represented by the gods, disciplining our pride and grandiosity was the way to live a good and safe life.

Humanity’s hubris is on display in Japan. As of this morning, four nuclear reactors are in danger. Do you see the hubris? They were not and could not be economically designed and built to cope with an 8.9 earthquake. We designed and built them anyway, betting that an 8.9 earthquake is such a rare event it was worth the gamble. And it was worth the gamble for many years. Now the 8.9 earthquake has come, radiation is leaking, and no one, most especially the ‘experts,’ who have a deep and blinding investment in the status quo, can tell what’s next.

Nuclear power is not the same as fire or electricity. Some argued that when Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind he was suffering from hubris. Or that when scientists tamed the gods own lightening and put it into our homes, that too, was hubris. Taming fire and electricity were not hubris, but heroic achievements, that never threatened the entire planet or all of humanity. Nuclear power does threaten the entire planet or all of humanity and it is hubris.

From the very beginning and right up till this moment, nobody knows what to do with nuclear waste. Is it heroic to continue to produce deadly, long-lived nuclear waste when we know the dangers and don’t know what to do about them? Or is it hubris? Shall we continue to gamble that the 8.9 earthquake or its equivalent will not strike again here or elsewhere in the world? Will we continue to trade humanity’s and the planet’s long term viability for short term gain? How many more disasters will it take for us to see our hubris and learn to live in harmonious balance with Nature and the forces represented by the gods, disciplining our pride and grandiosity?

Truly safe nuclear power, with knowledge of what to do with the waste, or the ability to produce no waste, would be like Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. It would not be hubris, it would be heroic. Let us work towards that. But without such technology, continuing as we are is hubris leading us to another tragic fall.

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