Accident: A Day’s News. Energy Narratives in Real Life

The narrative structure of this novella by East German author, Christa Wolf, is relatively simple in comparison to most energy narratives. However, it is this simplicity that makes this narrative truly insightful. The main character watches and listens to the news on the day that the rest of Europe learned about the disaster at Chernobyl, while at the same time she worries about her brother who is undergoing brain surgery. The narrator constantly addresses her brother throughout her stream of consciousness. In addition, the narrative switches back and forth from the narrator worrying about her brother to her worrying about the effect that the radiation on her health, the health of her neighbors and most of all the food she eats:

Where are you now I hear that the pollutant emissions following the reactor accident are more concentrated than here. Should we be outraged? Uneasy? Should we allow our feeling to become confused; worse still should we repress them as being insignificant? Insignificant values when measured with a Geiger counter? I know what you’re going to say. Don’t say it. Starting tomorrow, I have decided to cut down on milk and avoid lettuce. Today I’ve resolved to eat and drink everything one last time without a trace of bad conscience. (55-56).

The narrator associates her paranoia about her brother’s surgery with her lingering fear about the radiation from Chernobyl. In order for her to start thinking about her fears logically, she needed to receive a phone call from her sister-in-law about her brother’s status:

The telephone, not a second too soon. I hear that most important of all words: normal. Completely normal, did the nurse say? Really? We can stop worrying? The operation was a success? Oh. Really. I knew it. You, too? Of course he’s not awake yet. That’s the least of our concerns, don’t you think? I heard you were doing well, brother, circumstances considered. I was prepared to bless the circumstances…Now I make myself something to eat. Can listen to the radio. In Sweden the radioactive contamination of the air had gone down further. And the contamination of the ground had gone up in turn. (53).

The concentration on domesticity in this novel allows the reader to think about how she would react to a distant, looming danger. Most of us do not live near a nuclear plant, work in a coal mine or work for a major oil corporation, so we cannot always relate to what the characters in these energy narratives experience. However, this novel discusses everyday life: what the narrator has for dinner, the fact that she doesn’t want to work in her garden with gloves on as the reporters suggest that she should, and even the nervousness she feels sitting by the phone waiting for news of her brother.

I learned about this novella from reading Ursula K. Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet. Heise analyzes several environmental texts in terms of risk. She argues that the average person’s sense of risk is skewed to consider situations with more dangerous although less probable consequences to be more risky than situations with less dangerous but more common consequences:

Statistical considerations, usually the probability of a particular adverse event multiplied by the magnitude of its consequences, tend to shape expert opinions, while the public’s view quite often defies such numerical calculation. The risks associated with nuclear power plants provide an obvious example: based on the very limited number of actual accidents and deaths nuclear plants have so far caused, experts tend to rate their risks as relatively low, while nonexperts, regardless of the low statistics, assess them as much more hazardous than, say, coal mines or highways, which cause a much larger number of fatalities annually. (Heise 124-125).

Wolf’s text tends to follow that argument. The narrator perceives nuclear power as being a larger risk than fossil fuels:

Well we heard [the reporter] say, there was no such thing as an absolutely faultless prognosis in such a young branch of technology. As always with new technological developments, one would have to take certain risks into account until one fully mastered this technology as well. That was a law that also applied to the peaceful utilization of nuclear energy. Now I should have grown cold. Now I should have been shocked or outraged. No such thing. I knew very well that they knew it. Only, I had not expected that they would also say it—be it only this one time. The text for a letter went through my mind in which I—imploringly, how else—was to communicate to someone that the risk of nuclear technology was not comparable to any other risk and that one absolutely had to renounce this technology if there was even the slightest element of uncertainty. I could not think of a real address for the letter in my mind, so I swore out loud and switched channels (Wolf 103).

According to Heise, this novella inspired dozens and scientists and intellectuals to fight over whether her critique of nuclear power is justified (Heise 182). Some agreed with Wolf and others asked how she can critique nuclear energy without commenting on the risks associated with burning fossil fuels. The point is, however, that they talked. A work of fiction inspired a conversation, and that is the purpose of any energy narrative.

 

In spirit of that conversation, what do you think? Are the risks associated with nuclear power justified? Is nuclear power more or less risky than burning fossil fuels, especially considering the global warming debate? Is there a better alternative to both energy sources?

 

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, exaggerated inequalities, segregation.

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