In the brave new world we live in, your day starts in the usual way. You don't read newspapers anymore; you haven't in years. Lately you haven't even been checking newspapers' websites, unless you're following a link to some article or another, a link posted by someone you know, where "know" is defined as -- no, not in the biblical sense, you smart-ass -- "someone you follow on some social networking site." It feels a little lazy, getting all your news preselected by your friends in the computer. But, well, life is short, and there is an infinite amount of crap out there, and everything is a little easier if you have some way to filter out the vast bulk of it. Your filter is "People Who Share Your Interests Think It's Interesting." Whatever. It works.
So your day starts, and you're on your social networking site of choice, reading short bursts of language about unimaginable suffering or malfeasance in places where you've never been, or places that you know well. Someone links to something. Say, for example, this: US Nuke Plants Ranked By Quake Risk
. You click on it, and are horrified to see that the people you love best in the world live within a 150-mile radius of the three nuclear plants ranked to be at highest risk. You look at the list over and over again, gripping your coffee cup a little tighter and keeping half an eye on the tab that's still open to your social networking site of choice, because you're hoping that someone you know will say something that will distract you from what you're looking at, perhaps with photos of kittens? You look again at the tables, thinking there must be some mistake. You live in the Northeast, for pity's sake. This is not the San Andreas. But there it is, anyway. There you are -- you and everyone you love.
You read again, more carefully. The article ranks nuclear plants by their "risk of suffering core damage in an earthquake." Number 2, with a risk of 1 in 14,493, is in your state. You've been to that town; you suppose most everyone around here has. Your children go to that town on field trips. The nuclear power plant is not on their agenda when they go. You didn't even know the plant was there until last week, but since then you've read somewhere that the plant shares a design with the nuclear plants in Fukushima. You put that information together with the earthquake risk list, and have a sudden, dizzying sense that not very much separates you from the people you've been reading about, that your possibilities now are not so very different from what theirs must have looked like two weeks (a lifetime) ago. Who knows what happens next? You imagine any combination of natural disasters washing over the shores of that town, and you picture the roads you'd be taking to flee the catastrophes that followed.
Before you get too involved in your useless catastrophizing, you pull yourself together long enough to remind yourself sternly that you don't know enough to judge whether or not this article is meaningful or even accurate. Lord knows it's been a long time since you took it for granted that anything you read or saw in any media was accurate. And then there's the issue of the accuracy of your own memory. Pilgrim shares the same design as Fukushima? Are you sure? Where did you read that? You can't remember, though it was only a day or two ago -- but you read so many things, click, click -- how can you possibly remember? But it doesn't matter: you Google, and are relieved to see that someone has already updated the plant's Wikipedia page
with the same information, so you know that you are remembering what
you read accurately, even if you can't for the life of you remember where
you read it.
Well, you think. Now that the design similarity is known, someone must be asking the hard questions, right? You click on another Googled link, this one to a local television station's written report
. "The disaster in Japan is raising safety concerns at home. Officials at the nuclear plant in Plymouth and other emergency responders are now taking a closer look at their own safety measures," you read. You feel reassured. Until you read further. "Plymouth isn’t on a fault line and tsunamis aren’t a concern. Still, the plant is built to withstand a 6.0 earthquake and a total power blackout."
6.0 earthquake? Your brain is a whirl of barely remembered information, but it is not for nothing that you own a copy of this book
. Googling confirms what you think you might remember once reading: The Great Earthquake of 1755
. Was that more than a 6.0? You would like an answer on this point, but of course anyone who tries to give you a definitive answer is only guessing. You know better than to trust Wikipedia
when it tells you the 1755 earthquake was a 6.0-6.3, but your comforting skepticism takes a severe hit when you see that the estimate is sourced to an article
published by the Massachusetts Historical Society, authored by the director of the Weston Observatory
. Which is the chief seismic monitoring station in New England.
You've drained your coffee by now, and there are 37 unread updates on your social networking site of choice. But there's nothing you need to respond to immediately, and the child who's home with the flu is reading quietly in the other room. You Google the Weston Observatory in the hopes of finding something there that will make you stop hyperventilating quietly into your empty coffee cup. Well, here's a nice map of seismic activity in New England from 1975-2010
. You note with some relief that the few green squares marking earthquakes of greater than 5.0 in magnitude are all at some distance from the Pilgrim nuclear station.
But there's still that nagging worry, because how many times have you read recently about regions
that are "at risk" for severe earthquakes because they are overdue for one by X hundreds of years? 1755 isn't a long time ago, geologically speaking. Are we so sure that we're not also overdue for something? You contemplate reaching for an old geology textbook, or doing some more Googling. But you're tired, and you read this piece
after the Bar Harbor earthquake
, so you already know that the short answer would be, "We don't really know."
You think also of the articles you've been seeing linked around (like here
) that climate change and melting glaciers may lead to more severe earthquakes. Journalists are writing those climate change/earthquake articles, and you know better than to assume that something on a non-specialist site with a couple of quotes from some scientist somewhere is worth losing sleep over. But you wish you could find something, somewhere, that would help you decide how much credence to give the theory.
By now you've got so many browser tabs open that you can't even see the one still open to the social networking site. You think longingly of more coffee, and also of someone with the time and focus and expertise to pull all of this together in such a way that you can understand it and feel reassured by your understanding, if not by your relative risk. You hum quietly to yourself, noting that there is simply no way that "John McPhee" has enough syllables to replace "Joe DiMaggio" in a song, even if you are turning your lonely eyes to him.
Twenty-six open tabs. You'll close them all soon; you'll bring the coffee cup to the sink, check on the sick child, start some laundry. What does it matter if you understand anything, anyway? You remember reading this
and thinking, "The BP disaster didn't change the way anything got done. What happens in Fukushima won't change the way anything gets done here, either." Earthquakes, tsunamis. Things fall apart, and government exists chiefly to ensure that someone makes a profit from the entropy. You think about Category 5 hurricanes, and about how Republicans won't even allow that climate change exists
, let alone entertain ideas about how to mitigate or plan for its likely scenarios. You think of the photo that made you close yesterday's tabs, the one of the Japanese woman weeping, clutching a hand sticking out of rubble -- weeping while she holds her dead mother's hand. You wonder how fast you could run, carrying a sick child who weighs half as much as you do. Not faster than water can flow. Not faster than the earth can shake. Not faster than radiation can fall. You close all the tabs now. It is late; it is suddenly very late. And nothing you know or see or read is going to make any difference at all.