HETRICK: Energy gluttony means deadly game of chicken

On television and online, I’ve been watching news stories, videos and photo essays from Japan.

I’ve seen the tsunami first striking the shore—a road and some cars disappearing in its wake.

I’ve seen waves rolling into villages, sweep-ing away buildings, lives and livelihoods.

I’ve seen ships atop apartment buildings.

I’ve seen cracks in the earth, days after the quake, still moving, shifting and telling all who dare listen: There’s more to come.

I’ve seen nuclear-plant explosions, Geiger counters sweeping back and forth over children and elders, faces wrapped tight with hoods, goggles and duct tape.

I’ve seen message boards with urgent pleas for missing loved ones.

I’ve seen miraculous rescues, faces racked with grief, bodies bent in sorrow.

I’ve seen patience and civility too-seldom witnessed in other places.

In times of crises—some of our own making—we often see the best and worst of our species.

The civilian and military rescue efforts; the social-service workers who’ve kept people housed and fed; the heroism of the nuclear-plant workers putting their own lives at risk trying to fend off catastrophe; the man swept nine miles out to sea on his rooftop, and saved; people found alive beneath the rubble nine days after the storm; millions of charitable dollars raised all over the world—such is the remarkable, emotional beauty of people helping people.

But our foolishness and fallibility are center stage, too.

We build and populate communities along the shores of earthquake- and tsunami-prone lands.

We place nuclear plants in the path of peril.

We design and construct buildings that cannot withstand the shaking of the earth (think Haiti) and the power of the sea.

On offshore drilling rigs and in nuclear plants, we tout fail-safe devices that fail to be safe.

Having no good place to store lasts-forever nuclear fuel rods, we procrastinate, placing them in cooling pots at the plant—thereby adding crisis to catastrophe.

Passing the buck on our insatiable thirst for energy, we keep upping the risk with dirty and dangerous fuels while dissing renewable alternatives and copping out on conservation.

Then along comes an earthquake, or hurricane, or tsunami, or flood, or cyclone, or tornado, or oil spill, or nuclear accident and we’re reminded that the old Chiffon margarine commercial was right: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”

As energy gluttons—and in denial that such gluttony affects the future of our planet, our species and many other species—we are, of course, playing a deadly game of chicken in cars borrowed from our kids and their kids.

Back in 1983, Matthew Broderick starred in a movie about such a game. Broderick played the part of a teenage computer hacker, David Lightman, who works his way into WOPR—a computer nicknamed “Joshua.” Joshua is based at NORAD, the facility inside Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain that can monitor and launch nuclear attacks.

Early in the film, Lightman unwittingly engages Joshua in a game of “Global Thermonuclear War.” Problem is, no one can tell whether the computer’s playing a game or launching missiles for real, thereby triggering World War III.

At one point, Lightman tracks down the computer’s inventor, Stephen Falken. Now a recluse, Falken says to Lightman: “I’m going to tell you a bedtime story. … Once upon a time, there lived a magnificent race of animals that dominated the world through age after age. They ran, they swam, and they fought and they flew, until suddenly, quite recently, they disappeared. Nature just gave up and started again. We weren’t even apes then. We were just these smart little rodents hiding in the rocks. And when we go, nature will start over. With the bees, probably. Nature knows when to give up, David.”

At the end of the film, Lightman and Falken teach the computer about stalemates—and when to give up. Thus, war is averted. The world is saved. And Joshua is reunited with his inventor.

“Greetings, Professor Falken,” Joshua says.

“Hello, Joshua,” Falken says.

“A strange game,” Joshua says. “The only winning move is not to play.”

In “War Games,” Joshua the computer learns—from a simple game of Tic-Tac-Toe—the lesson of mutually assured destruction. In contest after contest, the same conclusion flashes on Joshua’s screen: “WINNER: NONE.”

How long will we keep pushing the envelope—with mushrooming population, burgeoning energy use, increased pollution, urban sprawl, poor design standards, risky locations, dwindling water supplies, inadequate flood plains, insufficient conservation, minimal investments in renewable energy and mass transit, procrastination in disposing of nuclear waste, etc., ad nauseum?

Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel once said: “Never allow a crisis to go to waste.”

Certainly, Japan’s earthquake/tsunami/nuclear crisis of 2011 will teach us lessons of survival, civility, heroism and philanthropy. I’m hoping it also enlightens us on a few more ways to avoid mutually assured destruction.

Only then might we say, WINNER: ALL.•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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