Japan Earthquake 2011, China Earthquake 2008

[Note:  This was composed soon after the quake.  The casualty estimate in Japan has increased 100-fold.]

I watched the news about yesterday's 8.9 earthquake in Japan for an hour last night.   While I'm sure the numbers will rise, I was amazed at low death toll.   Reporters in Japan remain on the 19th  floor of office buildings.  The internet still works.

Comparing this to the 2008 China Sichuan earthquake is a little tricky.  But start with the Chinese death toll.  68,000.   Add millions of homeless.   A lot of the problem, I remember reading, was hasty engineering, including build-up of schools and hospitals.

(And I won't start about New Orleans.)

This was a learning experience for China, however.  The same as the USA has a different San Francisco building code today than we had a century ago, Japan has calculated the risk for earthquakes and made a slow approach, making them last.  China will learn from this experience and build better cities.

Because buildings and people are not "disposable".  The engineering of tunnels, skyscrapers, rails and bridges is different from constructing packaging.   Or a cell phone or laptop.

Is it possible to build electronics to be maintainable and upgradeable?   There have been absurd efforts by some in the electronics industry to make products which cannot be repaired or upgraded (tired but true - ink cartridge killer chips).  But there has also been a deterioration in the maintenance and caretaking of the consumer classes.  Why make an engine to last 200,000 miles if you customer won't pay for the difference, or won't change the oil?  This is a two way street, and it's too easy to blame the OEMs for the obsolescence cascade of devices.

A combination of innovations in media (CD killed the cassette), raw material subsidies, energy subsidies, government corruption, and attacks on the patent exhaustion doctrine are all to blame for the low reuse and repair rates and the "throwaway society".  But people who should maintain stuff and take care of their stuff should not get off scot-free.  I grew up in and around the Ozarks (my Uncle Elmo Ingenthron "wrote the book" on Taney County and the hardscrabble life).  My experience in Africa connected with the 'make do' ingenuity and re-engineering of my grandparents.   Japan, too, started from a nation of tinkerers.  Repairers begin by knowing what fails.

That's what environmental activists don't understand.  The same thing fails.   The weak links on the same model car, the same circuit or heat sink in the same model of monitor, are easy to diagnose.  Because WE stopped learning to fix things and to buy things made right, we assume people who live in less privileged environments know even less.   Take it from this redneck.   T'ain't so.  The failure points will be studied in the Chinese earthquake.  And to the degree China controls corruption and subsidies, the next 8.0 earthquake in Sechuan will look more like the news coming out of Japan.

Some fans of this blog are engineers and retired civil engineers.  Perhaps because they know I'm a fan of theirs.  In their business, it is a sin to profit from failure.  They cannot say, "at least we tried" or "we had to do something".  There no "A for effort" in engineering.  And that is the biggest weakness in the environmental studies community today... people think there is.  We have a tsunami of carbon, and a tsunami of extinction, and a tidal wave of habitat loss headed our way.  It's daunting and natural to chalk up "effort" so we can shrug it off when it hits.  But an engineer knows that when a tsunami is coming, the bridge will either hold up or it  won't.  When the 8.9 earthquake cracks, the building will remain standing or it won't.  That's the way environmentalists must learn to think.  We need more math, and save emotion for the failure or success that follows.

 _ NOTE  Amazon Associates, a Blogspot widget which allows us to post a reference to a specific "buy it now" book (today's case, "Make Do and Mend"), I just caught running a generic ad for Amazon in the space for the book.  This is BAD.  I'm going to leave this run to watch it.  But if I put a darn link in my blog and verify it's a book link, I better not find some other ad running in the space behind my back.

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