2013/04/20

The Two Abes

Is the Abe government afraid of bad news leaking out before this summer's Upper House election?

Honest Abe
Shinzo Abe

Japan’s LDP government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has an ambitious reform agenda, but it cannot be fully implemented unless the LDP gains control of the Upper House of the legislature in the summer election of 2013. The agenda, referred to now as Abenomics, is an economic policy based on expanding the money supply in order to cause inflation that will, it is hoped, shrink government debt and devalue the currency in order to boost exports and stimulate domestic demand. Critics say this policy could fail to produce its desired effects and could lead to higher interest rates that will cause Japan to default on government debt. Interest on debt is presently at about 1%, yet interest payments consume 1/4 of government revenue. With each 1% rise in interest rates, one more quarter of the budget would have to go to interest payments, and, obviously, there are only three quarters of the whole left to play with. The architects of the plan say it won’t cause a rise in interest rates, but so far they offer no convincing explanation why this won’t happen when creditors will want a rate of return higher than Abe’s 2% inflation target. In order to hold onto power, the LDP have to win the next election before any negative effects of the new policies appear. The strategy for this spring appears to be to spend whatever borrowed funds are necessary to make Abenomics look good for the time being, win the Upper House, then worry about the consequences later. Damn the torpedoes.
Since the LDP came back to power, there has been a powerful public relations campaign to support the new economic policies. It appears to be a well-coordinated conspiracy among government, big business, the bureaucracy and the national broadcaster NHK, in addition to various boosters in the private media. It has been extremely successful from a psychological point of view. Voter support is high, and the stock market is up 20% (coincidentally the same figure by which the yen has been deliberately devalued), even though corporate earnings are yet to show any sustained positive results.
There is a good chance that all of the optimism could evaporate at any time, and the prime minister seems to know this. The LDP strategy includes instructions not to speak of specifics before or during the summer election campaign, and the conspirators are taking expensive measures to keep voters and investors happy over the next few months.
The government has announced, for example, that this summer, unlike the last two summers, the public will not need to cut back on electricity consumption. Nothing has changed in the dire circumstances of the Japanese energy problem in terms of the balance of payments, and the global imperative to reduce carbon emissions is still there, even though the Japanese government has too many immediate problems to even think about global warming anymore. This summer will be as hot as previous summers. Fuel imports are still hurting the balance of payments and nuclear plants are still offline. If anything, the problem is worse because the weak yen makes fuel more expensive. But none of this matters to the Abe government. The only thing that will be different this summer is that the LDP desperately wants to have control of both houses of the legislature, so payment of the higher energy costs can just be pushed down the road. Abe does not want voters to be reminded of the Fukushima catastrophe while they sweat through summer heat on their way to the polling booth. It is essential to make them think happy days are here again, at least until September.
In addition to the announcement about the electricity supply, Abe has promised that benefits of his policy will be felt by the working man and woman only after this summer because he has "asked" companies to pass on their yet–to-be-realized earnings to employees, which, he fails to mention, would imply lower profits and a reversal of the present run-up in the stock market. Workers can expect to see a summer bonus, apparently, but there is no mention beyond that of permanent salary increases. I suspect that even if companies don’t have increased revenues with which to pay bonuses, there will be a few token examples touted in the media to make it look like the policy is working. A few flagship companies will take out loans if necessary to support the party they want to see elected, probably with back-channel financial support for agreeing to be the poster children for Abenomics. Such is the lockstep nature of the government-bureaucracy-corporation-media machinery. And it will probably work. In this country, you can fool most of the people all of the time.
A report in The New York Times this week (Japanese Exports Rise, but Demand for Goods Is Lackluster) provides some interesting data from the Japanese Ministry of Finance about what is affecting Japan’s worsening trade deficit. Much of it indicates that Abenomics is failing already and not likely to deliver on its promises.
These are the highlights of the report:
  • In the fiscal year ended March 31, imports exceeded exports by a margin of 8.17 trillion yen, or $83.4 billion at current exchange rates... That was almost twice as large as the previous year’s deficit, also a record.
  • … surging imports of Chinese-made smartphones and computer chips helped give Japan a $40.7 billion bilateral trade deficit with China last year.
  • At the same time, exports to China dropped 9.1 percent as a flare-up in tensions over disputed islands in the East China Sea prompted … anti-Japanese boycotts. 
  • … sales of Japanese automobiles and auto parts led a 10.4 percent rise in exports to the economically recovering United States, the ministry said…  Japan recorded a $54 billion two-way trade surplus with the United States.
  • Thursday’s figures surprised some analysts by showing that Japanese exports did not receive a noticeable lift from the sharp depreciation of the yen under the economic recovery plan put forth by the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe...
  • …despite the yen’s declines, however, Japan recorded a trade deficit last month of $3.7 billion, more than four times as large as the trade shortfall in the same month the year before. It was the largest deficit ever recorded in the month of March.
  • Over all, Japanese exports fell last year by 2.1 percent to $652 billion while its imports rose 3.4 percent to $736 billion, the ministry reported.
  • Imports of fuel, which account for more than a third of Japan’s total imports, surged last year as the nation’s atomic plants remained idled from the March 2011 nuclear accident. The ministry reported a 14.9 percent increase in imports of liquefied natural gas… and a 5.3 percent rise in imports of petroleum.
If fuel imports represent 1/3 of the $736 billion spent on imports, this equals $245 billion. Fuel imports (gas and oil) increased about 20% because of the nuclear shutdown, so this means they went from about $204 billion to $245 billion. Thus the extra paid for fuel was $41 billion of the $736 billion spent on all imports; that is, only a 6% addition to the cost of all imports. Oil is priced in US$, so the problem was worsened by the deliberate devaluation of the yen, which coincidentally lost about 20% of its value. However, crude oil prices went from $105 to $88 from April 2012 to April 2013, which more or less negates the effect for Japan of the devalued yen – the balance of trade would be worse if oil prices had not declined.
On the other hand, imports of natural gas increased more than imports of oil, and the price of natural gas went from $12.50/MMBtu* in March 2011 to $15.90 in March 2013 - a 27% increase (with a peak of $17.20 in June 2012 – a 37 % increase). These increases have been made more expensive by the devaluation of the yen that started in the autumn of 2012.

Data on oil prices:
Data on natural gas prices:
*MMBTU = one million BTUs (British thermal units)

Another factor that had nothing to do with currency and energy prices was Shintaro Ishihara shooting his mouth off about the Senkaku Islands throughout 2012. The Noda government followed up by handling the situation badly, and the damaged relations with China caused exports to China to drop off. Ishihara’s crackpot outburst might have done as much damage to the Japanese economy as the tsunami and three nuclear core meltdowns. Then again, without his antics, the tsunami and the nuclear crisis, the trade deficit might have been much the same, depending on factors beyond Japan’s control. The negative demographic and economic trends had begun well before the tsunami rolled ashore in 2011.
The conclusion to draw from all these factors is that the loss of nuclear energy was almost an insignificant factor. Before 2011 it produced only 20-30% of electricity. The extra carbon fuel used to replace that loss can’t amount to much of an increase of overall fuel imports that were used before 2011 for electricity, transportation and industrial uses. If it works out to requiring the import of an additional 5-10% more fuel, and this is crippling to the economy, a conservation campaign, aimed not only at electricity but transportation too, could eliminate the problem. In the long term, there is so much more that can be gained in improved energy efficiency and investment in renewable resources.
If fuel imports really were the dreaded enemy of recovery, Abe would not have embarked on a deliberate devaluation of the yen. What every honest economist knows is that the cost of imported raw materials doesn’t matter as long as you can produce a sufficient amount of value-added manufactured goods for export and produce a trade surplus. This can then be used to finance government borrowing. That is the goal of Abenomics, and if it fails, it means only that Japan can no longer sell as much to the world as it used to. When the Japanese establishment blames the situation on the loss of nuclear power, it is just further evidence of its ineptitude and ignorance, or a shameful unwillingness to tell the public truthfully what the data implies.
The fact that stands out from the Ministry of Finance’s data is that the trade deficit was twice as large as the previous year’s deficit. Energy consumption has not doubled in this time, neither in quantity nor price, so it is not the main factor working against Japan’s economic revival. The more likely causes are demographics, inefficiency, lack of innovation, the rise of economic competitors, inept diplomacy and mismanagement of alliances.

Sources:

"Abe Says Incomes Should Begin To Rise After Summer," Nikkei.com, April 18, 2013.
Martin Fackler, "Japanese Exports Rise, but Demand for Goods Is Lackluster," The New York Times, April 18, 2013.
"Gov't may not request power-saving across Japan this summer," Mainichi Japan, April 17, 2013.
Yoko Kubota, "Look to Japan's ageing industrial sprawl for roadblock to Abenomics," Reuters.com, April 22, 2013.



2013/04/13

Nuclear Power in India: The Vision of Shiv Viswanathan


The Indian writer Shiv Viswanathan, who describes himself as a “social science nomad,” published a brilliant essay last year on the raging debate over the construction of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu, on the southern tip of India.
India has been attempting to go through the same process of “development” that Japan went through in the 1960s and 70s, but it seems to have learned nothing from the mistakes of those who have gone down this path before. Like Japan, India has adopted the energy megaprojects of a large state which feels it must crush fishing villages and any other small community that stands in the way of national goals.
Unfortunately for state planners, Fukushima happened just as the Kudankulam project was nearing completion. The locals rose up and mounted an opposition which dominated national and international headlines. Japanese villagers had no precedents to inform them about the nuclear juggernaut that was descending on them, but Indians had the lessons of Chernobyl and Fukushima to make them wary.

Kudankulam Background from The Week:

  • The agreement on the Kudankulam nuclear power project was signed in 1988 by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. It hit the first roadblock when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.
  • Owing to the political developments in Russia, the construction of the plant started only in 2001.
  • Concerns about the safety of the plant rose after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 caused by an earthquake and tsunami. People of Kudankulam started mass protests against the plant.
  • In November 2011, a panel constituted by the Union government, which did a survey of the safety features in the plant, said the reactors are safe.
  • In February 2012, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed some western NGOs for fuelling protests against the Kudankulam plant.
  • In March 2012, an expert panel constituted by the Tamil Nadu government submitted a report in favour of commissioning the plant.

Shiv Viswanathan wrote his essay in the form of a dream in which he conversed over the meaning of Kudankulam and nuclear energy with Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and various writers and philosophers. This is an unusual device because with it he attributes to these people words that he only imagines they would speak, but they are actually his own insights. He may have written it this way to honor their influence on his thoughts, or perhaps he just wanted to be modest. Nonetheless, I think Mr. Viswanathan should take full credit for them. The full essay can be found at Dianuke.org, but I’ve excerpted some of its gems below:

·           One cannot think of the modern state without the baggage of necessary evils. Torture is a necessary evil. Detention is a necessary evil. Suspension of rights is a necessary evil. Genocide is a necessary evil. It is almost as if you cannot have a social contract without necessary evils. The greater the evil, the bigger the necessity.
·           I somehow want to belong to a world where ethics is not a technical answer to a technical question. 
·           Today politics has become a dismal science and science a dismal politics. 
·           Science has to return to life. It needs a good laugh at the pomposity of clerks who run our world, who titrate truth through pipettes.
·           Number is seen as a form of assurance that creates certainty for the Hamlets in us.
·           Between facts and truth lies life. Facts are seductive, apples of knowledge which lie.
·           …Niels Bohr… loved the logic of quantum but still stuck a horse shoe in his lab door. When asked, he said, “just in case…”
·           You need knowledge to say you do not know. Not knowing is an essential form of knowledge… knowledge is not hubris, it is a form of caring. 
·           [Not knowing] is an ethics of prudence, of modesty of a science that senses limits and converts them to possibilities.
·           Nuclear Energy is a reason of state.
·           I think when Japan decided to shut down the nuclear plants, it became a civilization again. Ethics and aesthetics, honor and modesty became a weave. Japan realized the limits of modernity.*
·           Admitting a mistake is the beginning of a civilization.
·           A poker player, a good one, knows when to stop. Scientists are good poker players. They are worried that God might play dice with the world but man cannot. 
·           No good insurance agent would insure a nuclear plant. A scientist should at least know what an insurance salesman does.
·           Scientists who join committees often think like one.
·           Risk is a recognition that science has changed. It is an acceptance of prudence, the recognition that you do not know, the acknowledgement that a road accident and a nuclear explosion are different, different in scale and quantity. You have to design differently for both.
·           Pilgrimage should be a part of scientific method. Every atomic scientist should visit Hiroshima and Chernobyl, spend a few moments in meditation to understand what a hibakusha means, a survivor of an atomic blast.
·           If a nuclear reactor is bad science, what makes it good politics? Politicians. And scientists playing politicians… Good scientists who were better nationalists. They left science to become devotees of the nation state.
·           Nuclear energy feeds the state not a people.
·           Civil society felt that energy is a form of civics. Gargantuan energy leads to gargantuan states.
·           1984 should have been about a nuclear plant. 
·           No housewife would want a nuclear plant. It breaks the Swadeshi rule. You cannot control it. 
·           Nuclear Energy brings out the theologian in us. And the feminist.
·           A housewife is a body of knowledge. She knows what budget as a number means. Budget is a ratio of limit to possibility. Budget is an ethics. Budgets are not just about households. They are about planets and the cosmos. You need energy budgets for the world.
·           A budget is also a theory of suffering. A housewife suffers. She understands the everydayness of suffering. She knows you cannot buy happiness cheap. Nuclear energy tries that. It isolates the ethics and ecology of a housewife. See it as a feminine logic not as a feminist ideology.
·           Nuclear energy was a failure of language, of storytelling. It should have been a cosmo-comic, a story that inhales huge sections of time. The time of nuclear energy runs to millions of years and yet we telegraph it to a decade. When storytelling declines and language suffers, you get symptoms like nuclear energy. There was no poignancy, no pathos, no irony, and no regret. No guilt. Cost benefit analysis and efficiency tells you little. A thermometer measures heat but a Dante has to tell you about hell.
·           Aesop had more wisdom than all the cost benefit analysts in the world. A hundred fables of nuclear energy told with the endearing affability of the fox and the crow. 
·           Kudankulam should not be a petition to the state. It should have been a civilizational debate, summoning Tagore or a Gandhi.
·           Kudankulam is a thought experiment in the real time. It shows that if you begin with official science, modern economics, and political theory, you will reach Kudankulam. Current categories lead to the current crisis. Look at all the key terms at Kudankulam- energy, security, efficiency, development, progress, and cost. It is a don’t-use-me dictionary of terms, a lethal thesaurus of our time. You cannot argue the case in these terms.
·           Our protest movements are too reverential. They enter the debate as supplicants, as petitioners when actually we need a new Magna Charta, a freedom to dream and live differently.
·           Half of Delhi cannot identify Kudankulam on a map. Our clerks will claim it enters history only as a nuclear plant. For our bureaucrats, fishing villages have no history.
·           Our democracy breeds and thrives on informal economies, on margins, on nomads, and slums and pastoral groups. We pretend they do not exist and get irritated when they insist that they do.
·           We are a strange democracy which attributed thought only to experts. Fisherman can fish but not think. If they do, then it must be foreign hand, an NGO conspiracy, and the dangers of conversion. Delhi and Jayalalitha are convinced fisherman who think and think about nuclear energy are alien creatures. A state which treats them like planktons suddenly sees them as sharks.
·           Kudankulam needs to be fought legally and philosophically. Kudankulam is the heart of India. It belongs to all of us. Like Gandhi would advise, we fight it twice. As a village struggle and as a drama of modernity.
·           We begin without consulting the people. By the time, the displaced organize, the contractors are already at work. Everyone argues that the half done has to be completed. The contractors sound more patriotic as the project proceeds.
·           Security cannot deprive us of rights. Security cannot threaten livelihood.
·           Saying no to nuclear energy is the beginning of the new democracy.
·           Does democracy choose life or in its indifference decide it is quietly genocidal?
·           History has shown that a civilization begins to die when it ignores an ethical debate in a village. The butterfly effects of history have already begun happening.

All sections in italics by Shiv Viswanathan.

* Unfortunately, the writer seems to have been deceived by Japan's vague promise to abandon nuclear sometime in the future. In 2012, the government led by Prime Minister Noda made statements about aiming to abandon nuclear energy by 2030, but soon waffled on the commitment. The policy was never established as a firm national goal, and the present government led by the LDP is determined to make use of the nuclear investment as soon as its safety can be guaranteed, which logically means never, but for the government means soon. Japan is far from being done with its nuclear experiment.

Sources:

Garavi Gujarat News, India Court Rejects Plea to Block Nuclear Plant, September, 13, 2012.
Raminder Kaur, “Nuclear Power vs. People Power,” The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, July, 2012.
Martin Fackler, “Japan to Begin Restarting Idled Nuclear Plants, Leader Says,” The New York Times, February 28, 2013.
Shiv Viswanathan, "On Saying No to Nuclear Power," Dianuke.org, June 12, 2012.
Joanna Sugden and Aditi Malhotra, "Anti-Nuclear Campaigners Down, Not Out," The Wall Street Journal, India Real Time, May 6, 2013.

2013/04/08

How the Atom Bomb Rocked the World

If you look at all these early performers, they were atom-bomb-fueled… They were fast and furious, their songs were all on the edge. Music was never like that before.
- Bob Dylan, 2007


I learned about atomic weapons and the potential of nuclear war at a young age, and I was sometimes puzzled that people could carry on like the threat didn’t exist, but then again, the point is that I was only sometimes puzzled. Most of the time I was getting on with my life, like everyone else. I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative, and Chernobyl, but it was the Fukushima meltdowns too close to my home that got my attention and made the nuclear threat unforgettable.
It might seem that most people live as they did before the 1940s, concerned with their families, traditional beliefs, jobs and where to take their next vacation. We hear about close calls like the Cuban Missile Crisis, and bluffs by crazy world leaders like Kim Jong-un or Richard Nixon that remind us of the dangers of nuclear warfare. There is the occasional nuclear power plant meltdown, but it seems to be impossible for humanity to sustain a persistent awareness that nuclear war, or just a colossal accident in a spent fuel storage pool, could wipe out civilization--and it is probably a good thing that we can put these worries aside. Nonetheless, the awareness is always there at some level and it has had profound effects on history, culture and consciousness.
The atomic age came with the establishment of the American world economic order. The Bretton Woods agreement set the stage for dollar-denominated global economy, and that economy was based on military spending and nuclear weapons build up (for data on the spending, see 50 Facts About U.S. Nuclear Weapons).
Space exploration, telecommunications research and computer innovation were all directly or indirectly stimulated by the nuclear arms race. The Soviets and the Chinese were ostensibly not part of this new American world order, but they had to militarize their societies to keep up with the Americans. The atom changed everything, and it is still at the forefront of the major issues of this century. The intractable conflicts in the news this year are all rooted in the questions of who will be allowed to have a nuclear deterrent, and who will be offered protection under a nuclear umbrella.  So if you think you aren’t thinking about nukes, you just aren’t paying attention.
Bob Dylan spoke about this effect of the nuclear age in an interview in Rolling Stone magazine in 2007:

It wouldn’t have made sense to talk to somebody back then [in the 1920s and 1930s], to ask him, “What was it like in the late 1800s or 1900s?” It wouldn’t have interested anybody. But for some reason, the 1950s and 1960s interest people now. A part of the reason, if not the whole reason, is the atom bomb. The atom bomb fueled the entire world that came after it. It showed that indiscriminate killing and indiscriminate homicide on a mass level was possible…. I’m sure that fueled all aspects of society. I know it gave rise to the music we were playing. If you look at all these early performers, they were atom-bomb-fueled. Jerry Lee [Great Balls of Fire], Carl Perkins [Blue Suede Shoes], Buddy Holly [Rave On], Elvis [Shake, Rattle and Roll], Gene Vincent [Be-Bop-A-Lula], Eddie Cochran [Summertime Blues]… They were fast and furious, their songs were all on the edge. Music was never like that before. Lyrically, you had the blues singers, but Ma Rainey wasn’t singing about, nobody was singing with that type of fire and destruction. They paid a heavy price for that, because obviously the older generation took notice and kind of got rid of them as quickly as they could recognize them. Jerry Lee got ostracized, Chuck berry went to jail, Elvis, of course, we know what happened to him. Buddy Holly in a plane crash, Little Richard, all that stuff.

Then in this new record [Modern Times], you’re still dealing with the cultural effects of the bomb?

I think so.

Dylan wasn't saying anything original here, but he gave a worthwhile lesson to a generation that didn't directly experience how the atom bomb affected society in the years after WWII. The concept of the bomb as a socially disruptive power was expressed by many artists in the late 1940s. In the book American Scream:Allen Ginsberg's Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, Jonah Raskin wrote:

“Nineteen forty-eight was the crucial postwar year,” Ginsberg explained. “It was the turning point. Of course the atom bomb had already gone off in 1945, and Kerouac and Burroughs and I had talked about it, but the psychological fallout from the bomb—the consciousness—didn’t really hit until 1948. There was the splitting of the atom and the splitting of the old structures of society and also a sense of the inner world splitting up and coming apart.” Like many other writers around the world, Ginsberg turned the atom bomb into an all-inclusive metaphor. Everywhere he looked he saw apocalypse and atomization.

This view of the world passed from the Beat Generation, to Dylan, then to the rock music of the 1960s. Pete Townshend of The Who looks back on the era in the same way as Dylan:

As a young kid, walking around in my neighborhood, all of the older boys had been told… “Here’s a gun, go and kill the enemy.” We had none of that. What we had was, “There’s this bomb. We dropped it in on Japan. War is over. We now have an even bigger one. The Russians have it. We’re all doomed.” That was what I grew up with. So in a sense, the sound of the war, the sound of the bombers – I wanted my music to speak of that. That was the umbrella, the cloud that we grew up in in West London. And I know you guys had it too, so when we brought our music to America – although your situation wasn't as acutely bad immediately after the war - the one thing that triggered was the anger and the revolution and the reaction in the music. It really chimed with our audience here.

- Pete Townshend of The Who, interviewed by Barbara Walters and others on The View, 2012.

Dylan and Townshend seem to be saying here not that everyone was thinking directly about Armageddon all the time, or that Elvis was an avid reader of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. None of the songs on Modern Times, and hardly any other music of the last sixty years, is explicitly concerned with nuclear arms. They are about characters living in this world where things have changed, where there are direct and indirect effects of the atom bomb throughout our culture.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
As the music became “fast and furious,” so did the pace of social change. If further examples of the modern interest in this era are needed, consider the present popularity of cable television series like Mad Men (set in the early 1960s) and The Americans (set in the dying days of the Cold War), or the fact that my freshman students in Japan listen to 1970s progressive rock, or even Bob Dylan sometimes. There is still intense interest in these decades that made the modern world.
After the atomic bomb, people were on the move in the perpetually militarized and technological economy. Jack Kerouac was On the Road and Allan Ginsberg was Howling. People became much more inclined to question the authority and tradition that were filling the atmosphere with nuclear fallout. By the time the first post-war generation came of age, everything was being questioned. The establishment pushed back hard, but the Cold War unraveled in unexpected ways regardless. The danger seemed to be resolved, but it never really was. Little cold wars still play out in the Middle East, South Asia and the Korean peninsula, with enormous effects on all the proxies involved.
The World Health Organization is subordinate to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which promotes nuclear power while pretending to keep us safe from it. Seventy years of nuclear waste has piled up with no place to go. Hundreds of aging nuclear power plants will need to be decommissioned in the coming decades, and it would be naïve to think there won’t be another level 7 disaster at one or more of them before they are safely put to rest. Thousands of nuclear weapons are still ready to launch and be in the air within thirty minutes. Barack Obama has a Nobel Peace Prize for once having said some fine words about nuclear disarmament, but since receiving this prize he has achieved nothing on this issue, primarily from lack of trying. With absolutely no intention of giving up their own nuclear weapons, Israel and the US toy with the notion that there is a military solution to stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. How could all of this not be rocking your world?
_____

Dylan songs on politics, war and apocalypse (partial list):
Chimes of Freedom, Desolation Row, High Water, It’s All Good, It’s Alright Ma, Let Me Die in My Footsteps, Man of Peace, Masters of War, Political World, Slow Train, Talking World War III Blues, With God on Our Side and...
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall

Words by Bob Dylan, covered by Joan Baez, Bryan Ferry, Edie Brickell, George Harrison, Arcade Fire and many others.

No, it's not atomic rain, it's just a hard rain. It isn't the fallout rain. I mean some sort of end that's just gotta happen... In the last verse, when I say, 'the pellets of poison are flooding the waters', that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers. (Cott, 2007)

Because this song was written at the height of Cold War tensions and during atomic weapons testing, many people thought the hard rain referred to the fallout rain. Dylan denied this in the quote above, but still this song illustrates what he meant when he claimed that the atomic bomb changed music and culture in profound ways.


Oh, where have you been, my blue eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways
I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard
And it's a hard rain's a gonna fall

Oh, what did you see, my blue eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin'
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a bleedin'
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
And it's a hard rain's a gonna fall

And what did you hear, my blue eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin'
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a blazin'
Heard ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin'
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin'
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
And it's a hard rain's a gonna fall

Oh, who did you meet, my blue eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a gonna fall

Oh, what'll you do now, my blue eyed son?
Oh, what'll you do now, my darling young one?
I'm a goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a fallin'
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin'
But I'll know my song well before I start singin'
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a gonna fall

Sources

Jan S. Wenner, “The Long View,” Bob Dylan: 40 Years of Rolling Stone Interviews, p. 69-75, 2013. Originally published in Rolling Stone, Vol. 1025-1026, May 3-17, 2007.

Jonathan Cott, Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, p. 7-9, in Wenner, 2007.

Robert A. Jacobs, The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).

Jane Loader, Kevin Rafferty, Pierce Rafferty (directors), The Atomic Café, Libra Films, 1982.

Jonah Raskin. American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation (University of California Press, 2004).

The Brookings Institution, 50 Facts About U.S. Nuclear Weapons, 1998.

2013/04/02

The Stag of Dallas

   It seems impossible that the solutions to the most pressing problems of humanity will ever be resolved through debate among scientists, politicians, or the writers of newspaper editorials. Scientists can look at the same phenomenon; for example, the Fukushima disaster, and split into opposing groups who see it in two extremely divergent ways. How is this possible with the same data to work with? It is either a public health catastrophe that has ruined half of Japan, or it is an event of almost no consequence at all. If their data and their scientific methods can provide no answers and no way forward, it may be only artists who can guide us at this point.
   I was reminded of this idea recently when I saw the sculpture The Stag on display in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas. Like all the other busy convention-goers, I walked past a few times without noticing it. You just don’t expect to find such a stunning work of art in a hotel lobby.


   When I finally shook off my flight fatigue, I was able to pay proper attention to my surroundings. I took some photos of the sculpture, and found out from the staff that the piece was made by the hotel’s 2011 artist in residence. (More about the artist, Hobbes Vincent, here.)


   The work immediately told me much of what I've been trying to say for two years about the Fukushima disaster and humanity’s relationship with nature. Artists are often amused by what observers say their work means, but I’ll at least tell what it said to me.


   One review I came across described it as “surrealistic sculpture,” but I would add that it is also absurdist because the sight of the construction crew assembling a living creature immediately conveys that the idea is preposterous, for we all know the notion expressed in the poem Trees (only God can make a tree), or the moral of the tale in Humpty Dumpty. Yet we forget these simple lessons from our earliest education. It is not hard to find numerous examples of our pathetic, vain attempts to improve nature or to fix the damage we inflict on it.    We bio-engineer life to make pesticide resistant crops, which justifies applying more pesticides, which kills the bees that used to pollinate a neighboring orchard. We justify the existence of the nuclear industry because we need it to produce the isotopes that will “conquer” cancer. (Do I need to explain that irony?) There are even grand plans to geo-engineer a fix to climate change.


   The sculpture also reminded me of the contentious line from the 2012 US presidential election, President Obama’s declaration you didn’t build that. It led to a ridiculous false debate, with one side making the obvious point that private enterprises depend on publicly funded institutions in order to succeed, and the other making the point that private enterprises make funding of public institutions possible. They could have just argued whether the chicken or the egg came first, but even then they would have missed the essential point that only God can make a chicken or an egg, or anything that we ultimately derive our prosperity from.
   The sculpture has another interesting layer of recursive meaning, for the artist himself is, like the construction workers in The Stag, daring to mimic the Creator. But I put the artist in a separate category from those who make vain attempts to “decontaminate” Japan or “remediate” the Gulf of Mexico. While industrial accidents offend nature, the artist’s intention and purpose, and the effect of his work, are a tribute to natural creation, and they remind humanity of its lost humility.

Trees

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.     
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;         
A tree that looks at God all day,        
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;      
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;         
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain. 
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree. 

- Joyce Kilmer (1886–1918)