Two days after my horrible encounter at a conference concerning food education in Berlin, I decided to write a second article. I talked to one of my professors in university, who was also pretty much shocked by the discourse heard at the conference, and we agreed that part of research is to take the time to write down how we feel (hello anthropology). So, why was I so angry?
This relates directly to my previous article. Science IS NOT unbiased. It is embedded in a social, cultural, economic and political context and it would be foolish to think differently. Let’s look at the bomb A. After the bombs were dropped on Japan, scientists started screaming, saying that science should not be used in such manners. Why? Because of moral concerns. A second example would be cloning: there are still many debates concerning the use and application of cloning, even for medical purposes. Moral concerns. If we look at the question of nuclear power in France, its development was linked to the will of De Gaulle (and cie.) to give France a form of energy resource that would allow the country to get rid of its dependence on imported fossil fuels. Politically embedded. HELLO!
Science is part of everyday life politics. It is a part of our economic, but also emotional life. It makes us wonder about future discoveries and possible applications. It brings people to wonder if in 10 years they will be able to choose the color of their children’s eyes and hair. Will we be able to make the Down syndrome disappear? Should we? Or should we let nature proceed as it has until now? Saying that science is objective is stupid. Simply.
- Official government discourse:
The presenter told us she was not hired by the government to “calm down” the population in Fukushima prefecture. I thought: “well… how did you end up there, then?” While I was talking to my professor, I learnt that YES, she had been hired by the local government. That makes her a liar. And then she was saying how she had to convince people that she has not been sent by the government in order to make them listen to her. So… you’re a double liar? You told them you were not sent by the government? And you tell us that openly? I find it very surprising to be so shameless. She has been receiving money (as a consultant) to spread this positivist idea of science, telling residents that it is fine to live in a contaminated area, as long as you’re paying attention to a few elements.
She is basically reproducing the discourse produced by ETHOS in Belarus. ETHOS was a European program headed by an economist, Lochard. From this point, you can see that there is a choice made: they did not send a physician, nor a physicist, but an economist. He then applied complex calculations, embedded in “rational economics”, in order to see how to reach an economic efficient situation. As evacuation and managing evacuees (and paying compensations) was becoming expensive, too expensive, they called economists to try to find a way to deal with Chernobyl in more cost-effective ways. ETHOS was born. “Yes, you can live there as long as you do not eat the fruits and vegetables you grow on contaminated lands, burn the wood you collect in contaminated forests, walk near rivers which are highly contaminated, etc.” Is this “living”? I am not sure. But it is less expensive then evacuating. So let’s do it that way.
The Japanese government is implementing the same type of policy today. It does not want to pay tremendous amount of money on evacuation and wish people would stay quiet in Fukushima prefecture. Having people evacuating is also a reminder that the situation is NOT under control and that’s bad for the state and TEPCO. It is also hitting local economy hard. So why not bringing the population to think that it’s fine!?
- Taking people for passive objects:
I think the point that infuriated me the most was the following: “Science is objective; people lack literacy and are emotional.” It was an easy way to say: “those people do not understand radioactivity, we have to teach them the right knowledge”. But this is entirely wrong. If you go onto the field, you will find NPOs gathering data (air, soil and food contamination), individuals reading books about exposure to radioactivity and walking around with Geiger counters, mothers checking food contamination tables in order to buy food in supermarkets, worrying about the relations between external and internal exposure (which is largely ignored by the official discourse). People DO know about what science is about. They have learnt and especially now, 5 years after the accident, they master the numbers and the scales. Becquerel and sievert, cesium and strontium, gamma, beta and alpha, micro and milli, etc. They give you papers filled with numbers, going from one data to another, dancing through the tables. “I had the dirt in front of our house measured, and can you believe that we still have 13 000 becquerels/kg there?” “The government measures radioactivity at 1m above the ground, but kids are shorter so you need to measure it at 10 and 50cm. Look how the contamination level changes!”
As I was meeting people in and out of Fukushima prefecture, I progressively learnt about all of this. Actually, I felt stupid the first time I went on the field, because I thought I knew about this and I realized I didn’t. They took the time to go through papers and data, to discuss the question of the threshold that has been decided by the government, to explain their views on low-level contamination exposure. They are knowledgeable. Maybe thanks to the lack of transparency from public institutions and TEPCO. And I cannot accept this truth to be step upon by a lady who certainly did not even take the time to listen to people’s worries properly.
And this is linked to the next point: ignoring plurality. She was stating vague generalities about how laypeople are not knowledgeable when it comes to science. As I said, this fact in itself is stupid. But it also does not address the existence of diversity on the field, linked to different personal stories, economic background, level of education, possibility to evacuate, etc. People who stayed in Fukushima Prefecture are diverse: some of them could not evacuate for financial reasons. Some did not evacuate because it meant putting aside their whole lives (social, professional, etc.). Some had to take care of old parents. Some could not leave their business. And so on. It means that, even if people do not express their concerns out loud and all seem to be ok with contamination, it is not the case. Some people ignore the issue, in order to avoid going insane. Some do not believe that low-level radiations are dangerous. Some people worry, silently.
This is not directly related, but I am pretty sure that there must be psychological studies done on the field. There should be, at least, because there is so much stress, distress and anxiety buried there. I read somewhere that PTSD in Fukushima (non-tsunami related) could possibly become worse than PTSD linked to the tsunami, because fear does not have a proper physical representation. Fear is provoked by an invisible enemy (radioactivity), supported by a powerful knight (the state). How do individuals protect themselves against those influential opponents? How do they reconstruct trust relationships in this kind of context?
I was discussing the concept of “symbolic violence” with a colleague the other day. We were trying to put a color on this obscure notion. Well, this is, to me, an example of symbolic violence. It is invisible, sneaking in your back and telling you what to think. It is a normative discourse, contaminating minds in order to shape people’s beliefs and decision-making mechanisms. Domination wears velvet gloves, covering up individual narratives, muffling public discussions. I am personally interested in the way women are subjects to this discourse, and how they challenge it in order to protect their children. But I am sure that many men suffer from the impossibility to talk about radioactivity and their worries, a reason why I spend a lot of time discussing with men when I am on the field. All participants carry a heavy burden, untold doubts and hidden uncertainties. There is a real need to acknowledge pain, anger and hope, whatever the shape it takes, whatever the discourse it underpins.
I have a strong stance when it comes to nuclear power and contamination in post-Fukushima Japan. I do stand for the self-evacuees and concerned people. But I also hear the voices of the ones who decide to stay in Fukushima prefecture, those who make the choice (willingly or not) to live a “normal” life, without thinking about contamination and radioactivity continuously. I am sometimes speechless, trying to make sense of the discourses I hear. But I always try to open my eyes and my ears, in order to give space to all positions, all experiences, all narratives. It is an attempt, and sometimes I fail. But I wish more people, on the field, would try to adopt the same attitude.
Stop crushing personal stories under a heavy, noisy, toxic official, de-legitimizing personal trajectories. Please.