Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A Monumental Change of Mind

After the first seven days in Japan, the most remarkable difference I have found from the last time I was here two years ago is a dramatic change of mind in the Japanese people -corporations, civil society, public officials- regarding consumption, most particularly of energy. Private enterprises have reduced their working schedule during the summer months; people have relaxed their outfits; government officials are incessantly searching for new energy outlets to reduce.

The summer dress for the summer is called "cool biz" and consists of short-sleeved button-down shirts, no tie, no coat. Air conditioning has been turned up to 28C and metro cars have fluorescent lights missing. All of this is the result of a sudden energy constraint that surged in Japan after the Great Eastern Earthquake of Tohoku on March 11. That day, four of the main nuclear sources of electricity in the country which were very close to the epicenter of the temblor went offline. The nation faced electricity shortages, and quickly opted for a significant reduction in consumption to make sure there was sufficient energy for everyone's basic needs.

A country that for centuries has been very concerned about their fragile environment knows about reducing consumption. Six centuries ago, Japanese understood that if they continued cutting down trees they would run out of water. So they started preserving their forests and today the country has 72% forest coverage, a figure very hard to imitate in other latitudes. Japanese cuisine is characterized by low energy consumption: who doesn't like a strip of raw fish on top of a ball of rice?

I have heard unofficially that the goal is for the nation to reduce 30% of its electricity consumption. That sounds to me like a more ambitious goal than the one set for developed economies in the Kyoto Protocol to mitigate climate change. And most likely they will achieve it sooner rather than later.

The worst earthquake in recorded history triggered perhaps the worst tsunami ever heard of. We saw it. It was a horrifying nightmare that washed out entire villages. Despite early warnings, nearly 30,000 people perished catastrophically. The wave flooded the Fukushima nuclear facility, starting the worst nuclear disaster since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs 66 years ago.

Moreover, the Japanese nation seems to have rekindled the value of sustainable development, ethics and love. A high-ranked government official told me that one of the goods that has increased sales significantly since the earthquake is wedding rings. People are now reconsidering their individualistic lifestyle for a more meaningful standard of living by building a family.

A retired Japanese diplomat told me that the public is very angry about the nuclear disaster (it has not been controlled yet, let alone cleaned up). This nation has suddenly awakened to the reality that nuclear energy is neither clean nor renewable. It was simply inexpensive and seemingly endless. Generating abundant sources of renewable energy will be a priority in this country for the next 20 years.

Talk about a crisis transformed into an opportunity.

1 comment:

David Montero said...

Hello Alvaro;
It is not a surprise for anyone that Japan is once again raising to the occasion. The very fists thing that comes to mi mind after reading your comments is Easter Island (talking about sustainable development). What a great contras between the Rapanui and the Japanese people when it comes to protect their environment and their future. I guess we can learn the lesson from both cultures and understand that both ends are at reach.