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Jeff Koterba Color Cartoon for 3-13-2011, "Japan" Jeff Koterba Color Cartoon for 3-13-2011, "Japan"

"Now I know what is important," exclaimed a subdued survivor of the tsunami that slammed into Japan's northeastern coast last Friday.

The natural disaster, affecting one of the most modern nations in the world, brought to a halt large regions of the country and raised big questions about the way we live.

Most obviously revealed is man's desire to live hard by the ocean. For reasons of commerce, necessity, convenience and pleasure, living in the lowlands abutting the seas is commonplace all over the world.

From the Netherlands to New Orleans to China to Indonesia and Malaysia, hundreds of millions of people are vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis and storm-driven inundation.

In Bangladesh and India, poor people have no choice but to live in the poverty-stricken tidal lands where they were born. They might even be among the tens of thousands of destitute workers who dismantle by hand the giant, obsolete freighters that get sent there for disposal.

But in lots of locations, we have more choices. If we had more imagination and less ideological hostility to science, we might be more concerned about the probability of rising seas due to the consequences of climate change.

In 1969, the great ecologist Ian McHarg wrote the book "Design With Nature." In both scientific and thematic prose, he laid out an argument for understanding the geological and biological Earth, and for living and building upon it in ways that bend and breathe with its geophysical attributes and natural cycles.

Looking at the battered communities of coastal Japan, and thinking of McHarg's organic and sane approaches to development, I can't help but see how brittle, vulnerable, short-sighted and anthropocentric our communities and their infrastructures are.

In our cities and towns we are disconnected from nature, so we begin to think we have risen above the threats it poses to us, its own possible sickness and extinctions, and its critical ecological processes.

In Japan, China, India and the United States, we build in great sprawling patterns and drive everywhere. We think we are becoming "green" because we are buying hybrids.

But we are deluded. We might add 20 percent to our mileage standards while we double or triple the number of vehicles on the planet. We cannot smell the rising carbon dioxide in the air, nor see the diminishing oil reserves in the ground.

Our power grids and energy generation and consumption may illustrate our greatest insanities. In Japan, the fragile and centralized electrical grid has been knocked out along the coast since Friday. Approximately 2.5 million households have been without power during this time.

Three nuclear reactors at the Daiichi plant in Fukushima have all malfunctioned. Because backup generators and pumps failed, uranium fuel rods were exposed, became overheated and have created unstable conditions within the containment buildings.

That we build potentially dangerous nuclear plants rather than undertake the more conservative and incremental improvements that would reduce our energy demands, is reflective of our attitudes, values and who holds power in developed nations.

Beginning back in 1970, when the increasing frictions between modern industrial society and the earth's resources and processes first became apparent, if the world's leaders had begun to guide us in responsible ways, we'd not be in such jeopardy now.

Forty-two years after writing his book, McHarg would be appalled to see the insanity and recklessness with which we live. For example, the world consumes 90 million barrels of oil a day. Every day.

We take heroic measures to get that oil. We drill in the oceans, tundra, deserts and tropical rainforests, and then we ship it all over the globe in supertankers. We fight wars to control it and we'll fight more. Japan has 54 nuclear reactors that supply 30 percent of its electricity, partly because it has no oil.

Similarly, we're hooked on coal. So horrified are we by our dependence on it that we are renaming it "clean coal," as if that might make the pollution it produces more acceptable. (We also speak insanely about "sequestering" global quantities of carbon dioxide.)

The world's supply lines for food, water and natural resources are stretched taut and vulnerable across the planet. We refuse to think about interruptions.

But look at coastal Japan. Roughly 1.5 million households have had only intermittent food and water — and no heat — since Friday.

The disaster, deaths, radiation and evacuations in Japan are unique and exceptional in some ways. But they point out serious imbalances and unsustainabilities in how modern societies have organized themselves.

McHarg, who believed in people, cities, growth and development, knew in 1970 that we were on the wrong path and were building careless, dangerous, explosive (in every sense) places and dependencies.

He suggested that every action we take must be in harmony with, and deferential to, the health of the planet. Physical development, resource extraction, energy use and levels of consumption, must be compatible with the finite biosphere and the continued evolution of all life — not least our own.

He called for responsibility, modesty, safety, creativity, consciousness, joy and sane values. Most importantly, in a way that Eastern, including traditional Japanese, cultures would instinctively embrace, McHarg held the Earth in sacred esteem and felt that such respect could keep us from megalomania and folly.

Japan will recover from its disaster. And it isn't too late to redesign modern life. But do we perceive the nature of our societies clearly?

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Brian T. Watson of Swampscott is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at watson@nii.net.

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