March 9, 2012
by Annelise Riles
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One year after Fukushima, where are we?

A year after the earthquake and tsunami, and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant that followed, the crisis is most definitely not over.  With almost 16,000 people dead, and almost 4,000 still missing, and many people still living in shelters, the victims and the problems extend far beyond those counted in these already staggering statistics.

First, despite the government’s claims, many people still question whether the nuclear reactor at Fukushima, and the leakages from it, are really yet under control.  Second, the cleanup of the radiated area is barely beginning, relative to the size of the job.

Beyond all this there is the economic toll on the country as a whole. Think of the fisher people who can’t make a livelihood because waters are contaminated, the farmers who can’t sell their livestock (and in some cases have unfortunately resorted to duplicitous tactics to sell food products that don’t meet the government’s already weak standards anyway).  And then there are the many farmers who are not even in affected areas of the country who nevertheless are suffering enormous losses because foreign consumers refuse to buy their products thinking that anything from Japan must be dangerous. There is no plan for compensation for this latter group at all yet, as far as I know.

And the economic effects go far further. Think of the consequences of mandatory reductions in energy usage by factories all over the country.  Think of the financial hit that the holders of TEPCO (Tokyo Electric and Power Co, the company that owns Fukushima Daichi) bonds have taken–and these bond holders, by the way, are everyone: TEPCO had special dispensations to issue large numbers of bonds, and at the informal urging of government, all the big banks, many corporations, many private individuals bought them, and bought shares in the company which are even more worthless than the bonds.  And then there is the effect of a crisis like this on consumer confidence and spending.  We could go on and on.

But one cost that has not been adequately discussed in my view is the human psychological cost of all of this uncertainty.  Imagine what it is like to be a mother, buying vegetables every day at the grocery store and asking yourself, “are these really safe for my child to eat?” and the answer is always the same–who really knows? It depends on which expert you ask.  Imagine the exhaustion older people experienced,  coping without electricity at unpredictable times of day due to rolling blackouts mismanaged by the company, or the stress of office-workers stuck on unthinkably crowded train platforms (or worse yet, inside unthinkably crowded trains) as due to reductions in train service to conserve energy.  All these anxieties, these new forms of stress on a population already stretched to its psychological limits has had its toll–a 20% increase in the suicide rate in the last year, an increase in divorces, in behavioral and developmental problems among children and even physical illness linked to psychological causes.

If there is a sad lesson to be gained from this situation, it is that even in a comparatively rich country like Japan, there is no easy solution to this kind of crisis, no matter what the experts tell us.  I wonder if those of us with similar nuclear power plants sitting on earthquake fault lines in our own countries have fully considered the bargain we have made: do we really understand what the costs of a disaster would be? And do we really have a good reason to believe our own experts when they tell us, just as the same experts told the Japanese public, trust us, the unthinkable will never happen?

March 7, 2012
by Annelise Riles
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Launching Meridian 180

One of my early memories of my childhood in 1970s France, with summer vacations in the Midwestern United States, crystallizes why I am an anthropologist, and what I see is the hope of comparative and international law. The memory  is in two scenes. In the 1st scene,  my 4th grade social studies teacher is teaching us about America. America is a country so polluted she tells us that on every street corner are meters that look like parking meters. When a certain alarm goes off, everyone grabs their oxygen mask from their handbags put the quarter in the parking meter like machine, obtains a dose of oxygen and wears the mask until the sirens tell them that it is safe to remove them. The other students are fascinated, and I go into internal tangles. Should I try to protest that this is utterly false? Should I try to point out that the image of selfish hedonists the teacher is painting does not correspond to anyone I personally know? no, everyone is enjoying the story too much to care.   In the 2nd scene a few months later, I join a bunch of American kids on the playground as they throw rocks across the puddle, declaring that  we are quote bombing France unquote. What follows is a chain of stereotypes of French people explaining why they deserve to be “bombed”, all negative of course, and presumably all drawn from popular media sources since none of these kids have ever been to Europe. My own recollection of all these episodes is not so much outrage as utter confusion: how can people I like and respect have so little awareness of how little awareness they have? As I grew older, of course I had plenty of opportunity to learn how that same question applied in so many ways to myself and my own myopias.  The blinders become fancier, more professional, more technologically sophisticated, more entrenched in complex institutional and cultural relationships, but just as hard to notice, let alone remove, as on that fourth grade playground.

A year ago this week, Japan was hit by them massive tsunami and earthquake, and also suffered one of the worst nuclear crises in history. In the terrible days after that incident, as each of us reflected on what we could contribute, some of us began to think that perhaps we  also needed to confront our own personal and professional and cultural myopias,  and  to find new ways to build relationships that would help us think in new and hopefully more transformative ways about the policies and choices of our societies. We wondered if understanding better how, for example, our own policies look for the point of view of another society, might help us to avoid disasters in the future, and also how we might find ways to work closely on problems that are transnational in character.

The question  of course preceded Fukushima: many of us had a longstanding sense that the intellectual conversation across the Asia-Pacific Rim region about law and regulation broadly conceived is far thinner and less substantive than it could be, and needs to be to satisfy the needs of the current moment. In thinking about the causes, it seems that some obvious ones are persisting language difficulties and difficulties reading and writing in particular, the problems and costs associated with getting very busy people to be able to spend substantial amounts of quality time together so that they can reach a deeper understanding of one another’s positions, and some degree of lack of comfort or trust.  And perhaps among some colleagues a lack of a sense that the conversation is worth investing the large amounts of time that it requires in current formats.

At the same time, many of us feel that the existing venues and formats for serious intellectual discussion are not satisfactory.  How do we encourage a far more substantive dialogue between different forms of disciplinary expertise and between thinkers in different societies?

Beginning in March, 2011, we began to pull together a special group of visionary thinkers–scholars, policy-makers and professionals–and to address some of these communication difficulties by creating a closed, online platform where people can write in their own languages and have their text translated within a short period of time by postdoctoral fellows.  Two Postdoctoral Fellows (one Japanese speaking and one Chinese speaking) are available to take any projects, research questions, or interventions that might surface out of these conversations forward. We called  this emerging conversation and community Meridian 180, after the anti-Meridian, or international date line, that divides the Pacific.  The goal of this project is to invest in the cultural and intellectual infrastructure for the next generation of trans-Pacific relations.  Through a long-term multi-lingual conversation, the project seeks to make connections and facilitate the development of relations of trust among individuals who together have the capacity to generate the new ideas and to lead the publics in their respective societies to face the significant challenges of the current moment.

Meridian 180 is a project of the Clarke Program in East Asian Law and Culture at the Cornell Law School.  It is a non-profit, non-political project funded through private donations and with support from Cornell Law School.  It is comprised of Senior Fellows and of Members in law, the academy, private practice and policy circles who meet regularly via an on-line platform supporting multilingual conversation, as well as periodically in face to face conferences.  Ideas that emerge from these conversations are then incubated and developed, with the help of Postdoctoral Fellows based in Ithaca, NY, into forms in which they can make a difference in each individual society–ranging from policy papers to academic books, blog entries, and individual conversations with policy makers.

Our current forum, “How can we bring closure to crises,” marks the anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan by reexamining this particular disaster and reconstruction project from various perspectives and by putting the issues in the context of other similar disasters around the world.

After a year of work, we are thrilled that Meridian 180 is now finally official! We still have many challenges, from finding long-term sources of funding to finding a way to convince busy elites to make room in their minds and their schedules to broaden their own cultural and disciplinary horizons.  But what is really encouraging is the progress we are making on complex legal and policy questions like “what is the scope of privacy rights in the digital age?” or “what is the role of the central bank in today’s markets?”  What is even more encouraging is the commitment many of our members have to the project and the sense they have that it serves a purpose in their lives.  For more information please see here.

March 5, 2012
by Annelise Riles
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Japan One Year Later: How Can We Bring Closure to Crisis?

This coming weekend, at Cornell, we will be holding a very special conference. The conference marks the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis in Japan. The title of the conference, which will bring together economists, lawyers,
anthropologists, policymakers, literary theorists, and many others from Japan, the US and Europe, is “How can we bring closure to crisis?”  The program is here: http://meridian-180.org/3-11-2012_symposium_schedule

As many of you know, the events on and since March 11, 2011 have had quite a profound impact on me personally and professionally. It’s no exaggeration to say that my own vision of my scholarly and professional mission, and even of what is important in life, has been transformed by the events of the year ago. This conference will offer a chance to reflect on the enduring policy questions but also the more personal aspects of all of this, and also to consider what we had his academics and professionals can do to address the continuing political, economic, environmental crises of the moment. If you are in the Ithaca area and have an interest in attending part or all the program, please let me know. You would be more than welcome.

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