In the early 1980s, a group of antinuclear activists and musicians put together an album of protest songs as a statement against the development of the Palo Verde nuclear power plant outside of Phoenix. The plant is unique in that it isn’t adjacent to a large body of water, meeting its cooling needs instead with treated sewage from nearby locales. The main turbines were supplied by General Electric, and the plant has been cited for a number of safety violations in its 25 year history. Situated near the sixth largest city in the U.S., the Palo Verde Station has been the site of heightened security as a potential strategic target in terms of warfare or terrorism. But back in the ’80s, activists had other concerns on their minds.
They titled their protest album “Ominous Clouds,” to indicate the potential safety issues including a possible meltdown and the challenge of cooling such a massive plant in a place where water resources are scarce. The songs on this little-known record cover a range of styles and musical genres, from punk and reggae to folk and western swing, but all gather around the primary theme of a nuclear “accident” rearing its head and reducing Phoenix to ashes. The album serves as a harbinger of the issues surfacing today, with the ongoing disaster in Japan and the concomitant potential for a radiation plume to reach the western U.S. in short order -- including the possibility of Arizona being right in the plume’s path.
The songs on “Ominous Clouds” alternate between the silly and the sad, with a pointed critique of the political economy of nuclear power serving as the baseline. One memorable lyric in particular laments: “We gave up life and land, put the power in their hands.” Now, as then, the issue is less about what someone else has taken from us or done to us, and more about how we have steadily ceded control over our lives and communities to corporate magnates and powerful interests. The storyteller Utah Phillips -- whose pro-labor, movement-oriented collaborations with Ani DiFranco in the late 1990s presaged many of today’s issues and responses -- once observed that “freedom is something you assume, then you wait for someone to try to take it away. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free.” In the U.S. we’ve barely resisted, and thus stand today largely as mere vassals.
Indeed, shades of feudalism define much of modern life. Our serfdom is often masked by the ostensible “freedoms” and myriad creature comforts in our midst, while the “robber barons” continue to acquire wealth and power at our expense. The net result is what I have referred to as a “web of dependency,” in which we are ensnared by a set of forces that provide us with a modicum of “easy living” in exchange for our willing captivity within its spacious confines. As Pink Floyd once inquired, “Did you exchange a walk on part in a war, for a lead role in a cage?” The answer for most Americans is undoubtedly yes, and the effect has been to render us largely complicit with our own subjugation, as I wrote six months ago: “The hardware of our lives, from food and energy to transportation and shelter, is entirely bound up with the workings of a highly mechanized and digitized global economy. And no less so, the software of our existence -- communications, community, entertainment, education, media, politics, and the like -- is equally entwined within that same technocratic system.”
And now, for our troubles, we have a potentially runaway disaster in the making (yet again), which threatens to spread its misery over the hemisphere, conjuring those “ominous clouds” of nuclear toxification in the process. The powers that be will assure us that all is well, but of course the same thing was said about the Gulf oil spill, just to take one recent example. On the question of nuclear dangers in particular, the government has a sordid history of knowingly exposing the populace to grave risks in the name of “national security” or some other oxymoronic invocation. “Downwinders” from the era of widespread nuclear testing are still among us; Native American miners and neighboring communities have suffered greatly in the procurement of uranium; and nonconsensual testing has been repeatedly done primarily on lower-income communities and people of color. Despite repeated official declarations that the levels of radiation expected to reach the U.S. are perfectly safe, Physicians for Social Responsibility cautions that “no threshold exists for a ‘safe’ level of exposure to radioactive particles.”
Clearly there is cause for concern about the possible effects of a large-scale nuclear disaster such as the one emerging in Japan, even when the brunt of it is borne thousands of miles away. Radiation can dissipate over time and distance, yet its effects can also linger and become embedded in food and water supplies as well. Admirably, people have by and large not begun to panic, even as supplies of potassium iodide and other survival-related items have been rapidly disappearing from store shelves across the west. At my local health food store, the search for potential remedies even reached such a degree that all of the stocks of kelp (known as perhaps the best widely-available food product to ward off radiation poisoning) were sold out. Other seaweed items with therapeutic qualities remained -- so I bought them.
There’s no downside here, since I like seaweed anyway and it’s good for you in general beyond whatever properties it might possess as a self-help remedy to stave off the worst effects of fallout. Interestingly, as I cleaned out the remaining three bags of arame, a young woman with a long list of items in hand was nearby, and I could tell she was thinking similarly about what sorts of natural items might be of use in case of radiation exposure in the coming days and weeks. We got to chatting, and I offered her one of the bags of arame I had scooped up, saying somewhat awkwardly that “if we can’t cooperate in the face of the apocalypse, then all hope is lost anyway.” In this brief encounter, it was realized that the existence of an elusive “community” was perhaps the most powerful remedy of all.
Obviously the dangers ahead are real, and that’s true regardless of how the situation in Japan plays out. Those nascent “ominous clouds” wafting in from the west are merely the tangible blowback of lifestyles that have been increasingly out of balance with the life-sustaining capacities of the biosphere. We can only cheat this inherent logic of interconnectivity for so long before the net products of our consumptive ways return the burdens back to us. Someone, somewhere makes those gilded cages for us, and whatever they are exposed to will ultimately become part of our ecology as well. We simply cannot outsource misery and treat toxicity as an externality any longer. How many disasters -- either of the ecological or economic varieties -- will it take before people actively seek to reclaim their lost power?
The coming storm clouds will eventually pass; whether they’re followed by more from other directions is contingent upon how much we’re willing to change the conditions of our lives going forward. It’s all too easy to slip back into complacency, and by now many are no doubt suffering from a sense of “disaster fatigue.” Still, the ultimate disaster would be to ignore this most recent alarm and hit the snooze button instead. The musical invitation to engage our communities and assert our autonomy resounds across the decades. The songs haven’t changed much over the years; our best hope is that we wake up and listen.