Monthly Archives: March 2011

Fallout Fears (Part 2)

A pair of reactors in Belgium, near Gent. (Photo credit: Koert Michiels)

This post is the second installment in a two-part post on nuclear worries. If you’re a little lost, read part 1 here! Thanks.

First, radiation has a long history of very negative popular perception (only natural, considering the 20th-century’s long romance with nuclear weapons). Particularly to those who grew up during Cold War times, radiation is a symbol of fear and uncertainty, and it carried with it the threat of foreign aggression. Even now, when nuclear proliferation isn’t quite as much of an issue (though don’t get me wrong, it’s still a concern), at least to the younger generation, nuclear danger is still portrayed as a supreme threat in all kinds of media, even video games. Simply put, radiation is still seen as a grave danger to society by people of nearly all ages and cultures.

Second, radiation is invisible. This may sound like an incredibly stupid point to make, but bear with me here! The fact that radiation can’t be seen, especially at dangerous levels, makes it seem like a dangerous and unpredictable killer, and one which we simply cannot do much to stop. Now, while this is true to a certain extent, the fact is that the amounts of radiation typically produced by nuclear power plants are nowhere near enough to be harmful to our health. In fact, it’s been found that coal ash is frequently more radioactive than NPP emissions.

Third, radiation spreads, and fast. To add to that, there’s almost nothing we can do to stop that spread, or keep it from affecting people, apart from relocating entire populations, which almost anyone would be understandably hesitant to do. Unlike landslides, forest fires, or even tsunamis, there’s almost nothing we can do to halt the advance of radiation’s spreading. We may be able to predict it, but like a hurricane or tornado, there’s nothing we can do to control or avert it. Fires can be dowsed or at least contained, and floods can be dammed, but radiation spreads no matter what.

Finally, radiation has an unpleasant habit of overstaying its welcome, often for a very, very long time. Like a dictator who won’t give up power or a lingering and unwanted dinner guest, radiation is an insidious presence that refuses to be rooted out, at least not without a fight. The greatest damage that radiation inflicts is done over the long term, as it causes long-term cancers and seeps into soil and water supplies. This damage is hard to keep track of or measure, so it has an aspect of nameless dread to it.

So it’s easy to see why people fear radiation so much. It’s invisible, it’s silent, it’s trackless, and there’s almost nothing we can really do to stand in its way once it becomes a problem. But if you really look at the numbers, you’ll find that, danger-wise, nuclear has nothing on coal.

It’s not an easy thing to say that we need nuclear in the midst of the crisis in Japan, and it’s certainly not the most popular stance in the world for me to take. But unfortunately, our energy needs (and our need for cleaner energy) are simply too great to give up on nuclear power. What really must be done is a tightening of safety regulations on nuclear power plants, and further expansion on research into what must be done to keep plants safe. We can’t prepare for all contingencies, but the events at Fukushima Daiichi have showed the world that we must have well-thought-out plans for emergencies.

But the harsh reality is that almost no form of energy is truly 100% safe, no matter what precautions we take. And to move toward a more sustainable energy future, as well as a safer one, we must continue to stand by nuclear energy.

Author’s Note: This post was slightly modified on April 2nd, after its initial publication on March 29th.

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Fallout Fears (Part 1)

A nuclear power plant (NPP), an example of a key source of energy for much of the world. (Source: picture-newsletter.com, photographer unknown)

As I write this post, Japan is still reeling and recovering from a devastating trifecta of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear threat. The country has suffered a terrible three-headed beast of a disaster, and it’s taking a toll, not only on the country, people, and economy of Japan, but on the world’s mindset on nuclear energy.

For years and years, nuclear power has been viewed as a viable and clean source of alternative energy in much of the developed and developing world. But after the shocking triple tragedy in Japan, there has been growing fear and apprehension towards nuclear power plants and  nuclear energy, as the safety of this source is being called into question.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Germany, where seven reactor facilities are being temporarily shut down for safety testing, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has, for what many think is a mix of political and safety reasons, called into question the entire country’s nuclear power supply.

This kind of thinking has taken root all across the European Union and in many other parts of the world, including the United States. But is this anything more than hasty reactionary thought sparked by the ongoing crisis in Japan? There was little outcry or objection to nuclear energy sources before the disaster, but since the radiation dangers in Japan have caught international attention, leaders and thinkers have begun to reconsider whether nuclear energy is a safe option.

Now, it’s of course natural to look into one’s own energy systems’ safety precautions, especially right after a disaster such as the one in Japan. But the kind of panicked shut-downs and alarm seen in places like Germany in response to the crisis are, in my opinion, blown far out of proportion, and have potential to greatly damage popular perception of nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy has given us the opportunity to create quite substantial amounts of energy at little cost to the environment, especially when compared to other sources such as “clean” coal. A 2008 study that examined the relative emissions of a nuclear power plant and a fossil fuel plant found that the fossil fuel plant had emitted around 11 million tons of waste in a year, while the NPP emitted a mere 26 tons. There’s really no arguing that this is one of the cleanest energy sources available to us.

Besides that, the dangers of NPPs really do not exceed those of other energy sources, especially coal. It’s estimated that two to three thousand workers die in coal mining accidents every year in China, and explosions and collapses still kill dozens of workers every year in the United States. So why is it that people are so afraid of nukes?

Because this post is becoming rather lengthy, I’ve decided to split it into two parts. Check back soon for part two!

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Beyond Environmental Consciousness

A power plant in the Turkish countryside. (Photo credit: Connor Schaefer)

A very popular phrase these days is “environmentally conscious.” It’s a pretty ambiguous term when you really examine it.

The word “environment” is pretty easy to wrap your head around. But what about that word “conscious?” Many people throw this phrase around in the vaguest way imaginable, talking about “environmentally conscious solutions” to the problems facing our world. But few really make it very clear what that term really means in this context.

To be conscious is to be aware and attuned to your surroundings. Alternatively, it can mean to be awake. So if we go with these definitions, environmental consciousness means being awake to the environment, and being aware of your own impact on it.

But I would say that environmental consciousness is not a big enough step to take anymore. To be conscious of your impact on the environment is a great thing of course, but it’s no longer enough. The amount of damage that humanity can and does inflict on the Earth is tremendous, so instead of simply being aware of our place in the world, we need to focus on actively working to be more responsible members of this world.

Another way to think of this is as a shift in attitude from passive to active, or to use a bad driving cliche, to shift from ‘Neutral’ to ‘Drive.’ When home from college, I live in Portland (Oregon), a city that prides itself on its collection of hipsters and its (general) love of the environment, so I’m accustomed to seeing cars that look something like this. But many Portlanders, and really Americans all across the nation (and people all across the world), show their commitment to the environment only by words or appearances, and take little action other than buying stickers or using steel water bottles. (That said, I really do love Portland quite a lot, and there are a lot of people their committed to the environment.)

But words and water bottles are nowhere near enough to bring about the kind of environmental change we need to be responsible to our planet. We all need to move from consciousness to activism. Our consciousness of the environment is something like waking up from a deep sleep of ignorance. But it’s time that we got up out of bed and started actively walking towards a goal of greater responsibility and care-taking.

This can take many different forms, but I believe that the most important thing to do is to become actively involved in the political arena in whatever capacity you can. Of course, we should all be personally responsible about the choices we make: The food we buy, the clothes we wear, the ways in which we get around. But the simple fact is that the greatest negative impacts on the environment are committed by huge industrial, commercial, and agricultural pursuits. Now, there isn’t a lot we can do to directly affect environmentally harmful companies and industries’ pursuits. But we can vote or lobby for a change of government policy toward these groups, and get local, state, or even national government involved in calling the nation to responsiblity.

And perhaps even more importantly, we can make this an important issue in the communities around us. While our own environmental decisions have an impact on the world, we can do so much more by encouraging others to be responsible as well. The more people there are who are genuinely concerned for and dedicated to treating our environment right, the more this kind of responsible thinking will become a part of our day-to-day lives and culture. It’s time to move above mere environmental consciousness. Spread the word!

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Seeking the Spiritual: Dueling Monologues

Part of the interior of Hagia Sofia, a monolithic museum in Istanbul that has been both a church and a mosque in its past. The beautiful building has a stark and beautiful blend of Christian and Muslim art and symbolism. (Photo credit: Yours truly!)

I’d like to thank Musa Askari for helping me find inspiration for this post by sharing some of his father Hasan’s writings, and for broadening my perspectives on spirituality. I’d strongly recommend reading his blog to any of my readers out there. Thanks so much Musa!

Countless religions are represented in our modern world, spreading over the entire world, and affecting the lives of billions. Many consider religion and spirituality one of the most central parts of their life, and I would put myself in this camp.

But so often, this expression and belief leads to terrible conflict with those who may not hold the same views. Strong convictions born of powerful spiritual experiences or cultural forces lead many people, from all religions, to insist that only their religious beliefs are the best and only valid ones to have.

What this inevitably leads to is a dreadful and anger-ridden stalemate. When a person’s religious convictions become deeply rooted in the wrong way, they begin to lose the ability to listen to others, and only focus on how they can best spread their own beliefs.

And so the situation becomes one of dueling monologues, rather than a cooperative dialogue. For people of different religious backgrounds to truly get along and respect each others’ beliefs, those people need to abandon the notion that they are absolutely and fundamentally correct. A good image to help visualize this is that of two people shouting at one another in an argument. Both people are shouting their opinions very loudly, and being very vocal about what they think. But their voices are too loud for them to hear anything, let alone what the other person is shouting at them! The problem is, far too many religious people are so closed-minded and forthright about their beliefs that they can never manage to get along. Instead, people of different religions who fit this description waste their energy on trying to convince people of other faiths (people just as devout and rigid in their own, different beliefs), that they fail to accomplish anything.

There’s a great need to move away from this model of “monologue vs. monologue” and begin to engage in real dialogue with people of other faiths and beliefs, even if it’s a challenge to our own way of thinking. As long as people keep talking to each other as though only their own beliefs have any significance, and all other people need to believe the same, there will only be a greater distance between people of different faiths.

People of different faiths often have many goals in common, though of course they have different approaches. Religious faith can be an incredible way to satisfy our deepest needs, and often it can lead us to a greater understanding of spirituality and the world. If people of all different backgrounds and beliefs can realize that there is valid wisdom and strength to be found in other religions, then we can work together, rather than apart. This doesn’t even require total cooperation of beliefs! While different people may disagree on specific orthodoxy, or even how they think of God and spirituality, they can still set aside their differences and agree to try and learn from each other, working toward the same goals of unity, peace, and understanding. It’s time to give up our monologues, and finally learn the skill of dialogue.

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After the Bombs

Rebels inspect a pro-Qaddafi military truck after its bombing. (Photo credit: New York Times)

Five weeks after the Arab protests spread to Libya, the United States has found itself tangled in yet another Middle Eastern conflict. The question on everyone’s mind is, will this be a Gulf War or Iraq 2.0? In other words, where will we be after the bombs stop falling?

I think it’s safe to say Obama’s situation now is quite different from George Bush’s back in 2003. On a military level, Obama has been keeping his distance by not involving ground forces, choosing to instead use missiles and airstrikes. Obama’s military plan at this point seems to be to hammer Qaddafi’s forces as hard as possible without touching down on Libyan soil.

The UN’s decision to hold back the tide of Qaddafi’s advances on the rebels was intended to do two things. First, it was meant to stop further humanitarian crisis in the form of military massacres by Qaddafi’s forces. Second, the declaration was a way of legitimizing the rebellion’s government and the movement that put it in place.

And yet, as with every military intervention, this answer to the rebels’ prayers opens an entire book of new questions, particularly for the United States and Barack Obama. The president has faced harsh criticism from the left and the right for what many feel was an impulsive dive into yet another Middle Eastern crap chute. Some have even gone so far as to say that Obama’s presidency is “Bush’s third term.”

Now, although I’m a fan of the man, President Obama has made some hefty mistakes in handling the crisis in Libya. His first foible, which has compounded into the criticism he now faces, was his hesitancy in taking the Libyan humanitarian crisis as seriously as he should have. Now, I realize that I don’t stand a chance of pretending to understand all of the complex minutia and details that factor into a decision like the one he made, and how difficult it must have been, considering all the pressures on the administration about this issue. But it seems to me that the president should’ve given more initial credence to the idea of military intervention in Libya. If the idea had been on the American table earlier, there would have been more time to have serious internal discussions about it (which would hopefully resolve Congress’s beef) before launching in after a chat with Nicolas Sarkozy.

Following from this mistake was the lack of clarity on the future of the situation in Libya. While I don’t think that this is likely to become another Iraq War, US military involvement always brings up questions. The most prominent one, as I suggested in the title of this post, is what’s next? Many, including prominent members of Congress and thinkers on both sides of the aisle, have pointed out that Obama doesn’t seem to have much of an endgame in Libya. Bombs will fall for a few more days (hopefully that’s all), and Qaddafi’s forces have been and will continue to be whittled down.

But what happens after that? Now that the international community has intervened (which, even after all my hemming and hawing, I think was a good thing), how involved should it be? US administration officials have made it pretty clear that they expect the burden of this coalition to fall of the shoulders of everyone, if not mainly Britain and France. And hopefully, other nations, particularly the Arab League, will prevent this attack on Qaddafi from taking on the aspect of another assault on a Muslim country. But there’s a bigger problem than America’s Arab street cred.

The coalition’s goal in striking against Qaddafi has been to protect the civilians and rebels of Libya from the senseless violence Qaddafi would love to inflict on them. But how far can a no-fly zone and bombs take the rebellion? There’s a whole host of possible situations that could rise after the dust settles in Libya. The country might fracture into two under the pressures of enemy governments in east and west. If not removed, a vengeful Qaddafi might revert to his past terrorism, lashing out against Europe, America, and his own people. The opposition is still nascent (at best), and it remains a relatively untested force.

There are many things still up in the air where Libya is concerned, and I’ll continue to write about the situation as it develops. But for now, we can only hope that things come to the swift conclusion that the coalition is hoping for. And so, in the spirit of this post, I’ll end with the biggest question of all: What’s next for Libya?

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Why We Should All Read News

Get reading!

This post’s title is, I’ll admit, a bit on the direct side, and doesn’t leave much of the content of it up to the imagination. So I’m going to be cutting to the chase much faster with this post than I often do, because it’s an issue that I think is a very important one.

As the doors to discovery in our world begin to open wider and wider, we have more and more opportunities to stay informed and up-to-date on what’s happening in the world. Through incredible advances in technology, we’re able to stay informed about events almost as soon as they happen, and even watch events as they happen.

So there’s a lot of opportunity and availability out there! But why should we take advantage of it?

First, at least in my opinion, the news is both very interesting and very informative. Incredible and important things happen every day, and many of them will have an impact on our lives, whether that’s in a direct or a more tangential way. This is especially true in a financial sense, as events on the other side of the world, such as the tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan or the conflict in Libya, can have a hefty impact on our lives and livelihoods.

But keeping up to date on current events and news goes far beyond simple self-interest! Every person on this planet is a human being, which means that each and every one of us 6.7 billion homo sapiens has experienced or will likely experience the emotions, joys, and sufferings of life. Of course, few want to endure great suffering or hardship in their lives, but the fact remains that none of us are really able to avoid this. Indeed, these experiences are an integral part of our humanity. But as human beings, we also have the opportunity, if I can use that word, to share our human stories of great joy and great suffering and grow more connected, not only to those immediately around us, but to all people all across the world.

I think of the news as a way to do this, to connect with people around the world, even thought they may not know about it. By keeping up on current events, we can make a part of someone else’s life a part of our own, and by doing that we can become more passionate about the world we live in and the people who live in it! Some of the world issues that are the most important to me, such as water shortage, were revealed to me by some news source, and that helped me to become more engaged with the world.

People have countless justifications for not being informed about the world and what’s happening in it. Maybe they’re too busy, they can’t afford to subscribe to a newspaper, magazine, or online source, or they just feel they have better things to do. But, as I mentioned before, it’s incredibly easy to stay up-to-date nowadays. It literally takes seconds to visit CNN’s website or drop by the NYT site for the latest headlines.

I’m not just writing this as a plug for news sources. I really do think that staying informed about world events, to the best of your abilities, is a very important way of showing care and empathy for other people. It’s one thing to say that you’re praying for the people of Japan; it’s another thing entirely to show that care by involving yourself in their pain and understanding what you might be able to do to help. It may hurt to bring yourself so close to such tragedies that you could just as easily avoid, but I firmly believe that all people should do everything they can to sympathize with and understand each other. Reading the news is a great way to do that.

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Seeking the Spiritual: From Self-Centeredness to a Centered Self

We must move from thinking of ourselves to knowing ourselves.

The word ego has become something of a negative term these days, and tends to conjure up images of self-obsession and arrogance. When I say that someone has a big ego, it usually translates to, “That person is full of themselves.”

But there’s more sophistication to this word than most people realize. In a more Freudian sense, the word refers to the center of the self, and a sense of self-awareness.

We’re often told, especially in religious circles, that to be too focused on yourself is to lose the ability to focus on others, and this is true in a certain context. When we’re spending too much time worrying about ourselves and our own needs and desires, it’s really difficult to have any genuine care for others, and this could be called self-centeredness.

But there’s a key difference between self-centeredness and what I’ll call a centered self. To be self-centered is to think only of one’s own personal needs and possible gains. To have a centered self is to have a deep understanding of those personal needs and the nature of who you are as a person. It’s an awareness of your identity as a human being, but not an obsession with that identity or that human being.

The problem is, most people can’t seem to think of the self at the center as a good thing, but only as a source of arrogance and egotism. The key here is to understand what having a centered self really is. Of course, as a college student, I realize I’m not really at all qualified to say I either understand this or have the authority to tell others how they should. So, I’m choosing to merely encourage others to begin exploring the concept of the “self;” how to replace self-centeredness with a centered self.

Let’s go into a little more detail about self-centeredness. I’m sure we all have some concept of this, and certainly some personal experience with it. Self-centeredness is thinking only of your own interests, and pursuing only the things that personally benefit you. To my mind, this self-centeredness is a distortion of the true vision of the self that we should have. Our self should be very important, indeed central, to us, but this should not take the form of pursuing our vain and vague desires, at whatever the cost.

A self at the center should instead take the form of self awareness. Most people place a fairly high value on themselves, and this is only to be expected. But we should not use this value as a way to justify thoughts of self-superiority or self-righteousness. We should use this value to realize our importance as members of the human race. And on a more spiritual level, we should realize that our self-value is a metaphysical thing as well! The self I’m talking about in this post isn’t our physical body; it’s our soul, or our essence, if you will. It’s a self that goes beyond anything we’ve done in this life or anyone we consider ourselves to be. In other words, the self is the soul, and it must be at the center of everything we do.

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