issue 231 - May 1992
Japan is sold on - and selling - technology to cure all
environmental ills. Rick Davis doesn't buy it.
MY son has a chronic cough because of the busy street in front of our house. Newspapers report that all over Japan there is an increase in small children being admitted to hospitals. They have asthmatic conditions that are largely attributable to automobile air pollution.
Just a few blocks from my home a street that was suffering chronic traffic jams was widened to add two more lanes. Homes and businesses were torn down to make room for more cars. Owners were handsomely compensated with tax yen. The new section is now nearly complete, and the heavier volume of traffic is helping to make the city's already acrid air even worse.
For me this typifies the way the Japanese Government deals with environmental problems. Congestion is dealt, with by street-widening, rather than by cutting traffic volumes. This is classic 'technofix', leaving the causes - and the system - intact.
Pollution and effluent are good business. Japan aims to be the world's leading vendor of pollution abatement technology - smokestack scrubbers and effluent purification units. Companies that have installed a large number of units to eliminate sulphur and nitrogen emissions in Japan are now selling the technologies to other countries, particularly in Asia.
I once had the pleasure of covering an international environmental symposium featuring ministers and other assorted luminaries from Asian countries. Mr. Aoki Masahisa, then director-general of Japan's Environment Agency, delivered an address stressing Japan's dependence upon the bounty of nature. Japan, he said, imports more petroleum, lumber, cotton and wool than any other country, consumes fully one-third of all the world's shrimp... and there was a lot more.
At the end of this awesome list I fully expected him to say: 'It is thus incumbent on us to reduce consumption in order to live more easily on the earth.' But instead he outlined a programme to expand the use of Japanese pollution abatement technologies.
The conference agreed on the need for a more intensive management of nature in Asia. The ecological crisis had to be countered. But raw materials for an expanding consumer culture were still required. Japan would provide the management technologies and the cash. Mr. Kira Tatsuo, director of the Lake Biwa Research Institute, proclaimed the need to find fast-growing species of tropical trees and make them grow even faster.
Last April Japan's major business organisation, the Federation of Economic Organisations - commonly known as Keidanren - published its Keidanren Global Environment Charter with great fanfare. 'The business world, academic circles, and government,' it concluded, 'must pool their resources to create innovative technologies for preserving the environment, conserving energy and cutting back on resource consumption.' Official Guidelines' exhort companies to care for the ecosystem, conserve resources, appoint executives and create organizations. Many companies already have 'environmental offices' or the like - but to no obvious avail.
For, quite predictably, nowhere is there a hint that corporations might do much more for the earth by producing less. Technofix must satisfy the need for conservation without lowering production. So the only way to cut consumption of resources and energy is with technological breakthroughs.
That's the theory, anyway. But what are Japanese corporations actually doing? The Japanese auto industry is making great efforts to come up with new lean-burn engines and other technological innovations. They will help Japanese car makers to expand in countries like Thailand, which are already choking on heavy traffic and horrific air pollution. New technology will give the developing Asian countries an excuse to sidestep the need to reduce the number of cars and think about development in a different way.
Smokestack emissions are another prime target of technofix efforts. The number of flue-gas desulfurization units in Japan rose from 102 in 1970 to 1,810 in 1988, and denitrification units from five in 1972 to 379 in 1988. But with the advent of the global-warming scare carbon dioxide (CO2) has grabbed the limelight - 27 per cent of Japan's CO2 emissions come from power stations. So this is where the electricity generating industry is now focusing its efforts.
In early May 1989 the Kansai Electric Power Co was the first in Japan to fit a unit that recovers CO2 from flue gases. Many more have followed suit. At the Tohoku Electric plant in Sendai City an experiment is underway to get algae to consume the CO2 produced by the plant. These small aquatic plants do indeed consume CO2 and grow much faster than other plants - but the experiment still has a long way to go. Research is also underway into liquefying CO2 and storing it on the sea bed at a depth of 3,000 metres - a plan that has generated much international controversy.
The recovery of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and the search for CFC substitutes are well underway in Japan. But many of the CFC substitutes have high global-warming potential or some other problem, replacing one poison with another. Almost all automobiles now sold in Japan are equipped with air conditioning - yet government expects consumers to take seriously its injunction not to overcool their houses with ozone-destroying air conditioners.
Restoring the rainforests is another recurring theme for Japanese businesses. The most recent scheme is to use biotechnology to create culture mediums for saplings - while Japan continues to hack away at what's left of Third World rainforests.
I was once commissioned to translate a brochure from one of Japan's major construction companies. This was before I knew much about the Global Infrastructure Fund (GIF) except its name. Unfolded before my eyes was a grand plan for 'greening the African desert' by creating huge artificial lakes and pumping them full of sea water. This is just the beginning. The same business and banking consortium is planning a second Panama Canal, the Kra Isthmus Canal to the Gulf of Thailand; a New Silk Road (a superhighway across Asia to Europe); a bridge across the Straits of Gibraltar; a huge Central African lake; a dam across the Bering Strait, and a global network of power stations. These projects, which would be underwritten by Japanese capital, typically combine massive construction costs with high technology supplied by... you guessed it.
According to their promoters these projects will not only save the earth but stimulate local economies. But if the past record of official development assistance projects - or indeed of the 'development' of Okinawa by mainland Japanese corporations - is anything to go by the real profiteers are going to be the companies who implement the projects. Since Third World nations usually have little if any technology, expertise, heavy machinery or materials to offer for use in megaprojects, these typically supplied by First World contractors, with locals doing the stoop labour.
Government is investing heavily in technofix. Take the 'Action Programme to Arrest Global Warming'. Technology has a predictably major role to play in cutting, reducing and fixing greenhouse gases. It is to be used to develop 'agricultural, forestry and fishery technologies, such as the development of breeds adaptable to the environment...' No mention of managing consumption or tackling the underlying causes that are crippling the ecosystem.
Another plan of doubtful distinction is 'New Earth 21'. The Japanese name of this plan literally means 'Earth Regeneration Plan', testimony to the noble intent of its creators. It is a closely guarded secret by the Government. It ignores ecological salvation through contraction - reduced consumption and living lighter on the earth - in favour of solving global environmental problems through further expansion.
The Government's energy research and development budget is a good illustration of blind faith in technology. It is based on the assumption that the only way to stop global warming is through nuclear power, 'because it has no CO2 emissions'.
Seventy per cent of the environment budget for 1992 relates to energy - 62 per cent to nuclear power. If you include projects by the Science and Technology Agency and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), fully 80 per cent of the combined energy budget is concerned with the development and promotion of nuclear power. The Science and Technology Agency's projects take in fusion research, fast breeder research, development of spent nuclear fuel reprocessing technologies, and even the massive cleanup job on the miserably failed nuclear-powered research vessel Musu.
That, to the Japanese Government, is protecting the global environment. Meanwhile, only minuscule amounts of money are budgeted for the research and development of new and renewable energy sources. The budgets for alleviating air and water pollution have actually been cut back.
An editorial in the prestigious Japan Times reflects the official view of the powerful mandarins in charge at MITI. Instead of shutting down some of the non-nuclear power plants MITI plans to connect 'photo-chemical bioreactors' to them to 'eliminate the carbon dioxide in smoke emissions and... produce useful materials'. 'We need to have unlimited research funds...' is the conclusion.' More research' has always been the rallying cry of procrastinators.
The Japanese economist Shibata Kai has identified what he calls 'a law of the calamity of destruction'. In a nutshell, he argues that both socialism and capitalism are engaged in a hopeless struggle to stave off ecological calamity; a struggle which in effect only worsens the crisis to come. Maintaining a modern industrial infrastructure requires vast amounts of resources and energy - more than the global ecosystem can possibly sustain. Putting a scrubber on a smokestack may appear to solve the pollution problem, but it actually leads us into an ever-widening spiral of resource/energy depletion and pollution.
Technological solutions are the centrepiece of Japanese industrial and corporate policy. Without technofix their industrial regime would be unthinkable in this over-populated island of limited and shrinking reserves of energy and resources.
But this is no justification for technofix. Rather, it is an urgent signal to Japan's leaders - and to those of the rest of the world - that they had better come up with something else, and fast. Sooner or later we shall reach the breaking point, where the technofix will no longer work - and then it will be too late.
Rick Davis is the editor of the Japan Environment Newsletter.
RECIPE FOR TECHNOFIX
(1) First take a large pot of public credibility. The public is easy to convince because it wants to be convinced, and the Japanese are enraptured by the possibilities of technofix because of their abiding faith in science and technology. Believing that a solution has been found, we can carry on without changing our ways.
(2) Finely chop several large chunks of leading-edge technology to keep oneself at the forefront of high-tech development.
(3) Add a dash of national prestige. Japan's high-speed trains, like the US space shuttle, are talismans of modernity.
(4) Season liberally with cash. Technofix means profits. While there is little money to be made in eliminating the causes of cancer or pollution, the research and the marketing of cures is big business. As long as we stick to our nasty habits, there will always be a big market for panaceas and placebos.
(5) Stir in unlimited desires. With added biotechnology we can remodel everything from microbes to domestic animals and trees to make them produce still more for human consumption. Cook with global warming. Serve with business-as-usual to stave off that ecological heart attack for a couple more years at least.
YEN FOR UNDERDEVELOPMENT
Fresh tuna - the main ingredient for those favourites sushi and sashimi - has become a staple in the affluent Japanese diet. The two preferred species of tuna now rank second and sixth amongst all the goods imported into Japan by air. It is thus not surprising that government aid ('overseas development assistance' - ODA) is being used to help land the big fish on Japanese plates.
The Indonesian town of Muara Baru was a sleepy fishing village near Jakarta until it was transformed by 'tuna money'. It is now a busy port fully equipped with a sophisticated fishing fleet, ice warehouses and ice-producing factories. In Indonesia most fishing is still done by sailing vessels that can't go out to the deep ocean after big fish - in any case they are too small to carry tuna. But Jakarta, in its quest for foreign currency, begun to look to tuna as an important export product. By 1983 it was exporting 2,883 tons of the two major species, yellowfin and big-eye, by air to Japan.
Muara Barus modern port was built with ODA yen. The feasibility study was conducted in 1973 by JICA (Japan International Co-operation Agency). The port was completed in 1984 after receiving a total of 8.3 billion yen ($64 million). With the port built around the sophisticated tuna fishery, local fishing people found their traditional livelihood in increasing jeopardy. Now small local boats are no longer able to use the port.
Today Muara Baru's fishing fleet is transformed. It has become international. The largest number of ships is Taiwanese, followed closely by the Japanese and South Koreans. Apart from high-ranking officers, all the crew on the 100-odd Japanese ships are Indonesian. These ships typically go out on two or three month voyages in Indonesian waters, and carry freezing facilities. Freezers allow for about two weeks' storage before the fish is off-loaded, quickly packed and sent raw by air to Japan.
In the evening Muara Baru becomes Jakarta's bustling fish market, but the tuna is almost never eaten on Java. As a marketing strategy Jakarta holds the occasional 'tuna festival' where you can eat fish of a quality usually found only in the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. But these festivals are aimed at Japanese tourists. The menu of sushi, sashimi, and tuna-based tekka-don, at prices of about 800 rupiahs ($10), is a lot more than most Javanese could ever afford.
A report by the Pacific-Asia Resource Centre in Tokyo.
YEN FOR UNDERDEVELOPMENT
BURMA (Myanmar) is today a country in upheaval. Japan, following the lead of other major donors, cut off its Burmese aid programme in 1989 after the military began to massacre or imprison political opponents.
Unlike other industrialized nations, Tokyo was quick to recognize the military regime. Assistance resumed following the Burmese elections of 1990. But the Burmese military refused to accept a crushing defeat at the polls by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). Instead they formed an ominously-named State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORO). Japanese Cabinet Secretary Sakamoto Misoji was moved to call the situation 'unpleasant' when the council placed NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyl under house arrest.
Japan's growing economic power makes it a key aid donor and trading partner throughout the Asian-Pacific third world. Japan is Burma's largest donor, accounting for fully 80 per cent of all official government aid to the military regime. Since 1976, when Burma's stagnating economy forced the country out of its experiment in self-reliant isolation and into the aid market, Japan has contributed approximately $50 billion. Most of this has been in loans - contributing to Burma's heavy debt burden. By the late 1980s Japanese allotments of development assistance (ODA) rose to $300 million in loans and $70 million in grants every year.
Much of this economic aid has gone to Japanese consulting and construction companies, often the real beneficiaries of many Japanese ODA programmes.
Some understanding of why this enormous amount of aid has failed to reverse Burmese decline can be gained by looking at the project to build Hino military trucks. The contracting company is Japanese, and the recipient is the Burmese military. The trucks produced in this project are being used to both repress demonstrations in the cities and carry out military operations against guerrilla armies in the border regions. The profits go to Japan - all the Burmese are left with is a heavier debt burden and an even stronger military.
A report by the Pacific-Asia Resource Centre in Tokyo.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7