When things go wrong: energy and landscapes of stigma?

Over the last year and a bit, thousands of hours of productivity have been lost within the global geoscience research community. The reason? GeoGuessr. This hugely addictive game – in which the player is plonked down at a random Google Street View location and left to use cues from the virtual landscape to figure out where they are – has hooked map aficionados worldwide.

A recent revision of GeoGuessr allows the user to limit the confines within which they can be placed to a specific country. In other words, if one wants to play a game using locations in the UK and the UK alone, it is now possible to do so. In order to give myself the illusion of productivity whilst I idly while away my coffee breaks clicking endlessly away at the map, I’ve taken to playing GeoGuessr Japan – my reasoning being that by having to read the Japanese signs in order to work out where I am, I’ll increase my familiarity with the kanji characters that make up much of the written Japanese language.

This was all good fun until I had a somewhat unsettling experience. To the casual observer, the Japanese built environment is normally very clean, orderly and tidy. You can be dropped in twenty different locations by GeoGuessr and not once see a piece of litter, smashed window or fallen down road sign. And yet one evening, the game chose to place me somewhere rather odd. Directly in front of me was a derelict-looking pachinko parlour (think bingo hall), and across the road was a grubby white building with rusting construction machinery parked out front. The grass at the sides of the road was long, and only a few trucks were visible on the road.

I navigated away from the big junction, first into an overgrown slip road and then onto a long white flyover running parallel to a railway line. On the other side of the bridge, order was restored. Shops looked open, people walked the streets, cars drove about, flags were flying. Still slightly saddened that down-at-heel places could exist in Japan, I set about clicking and zooming my way round the town to work out where I was. I found a school with the name of the city ward and a shrine with a title I was able to understand, but still needed something with the name of either the prefecture or a big city to help focus my search.

My eye was drawn to what looked like a craft fair or car boot sale in the parking lot adjacent to the school. There were tables and cars and banners. And people in full white chemical protection suits. I started to decipher the tall oblong flags next to the table. South something or other. Minami? Nan? What was the next one? I’d seen it on a railway line sign? So? Yoko? The last one was the character for horse. Uma? Ba? Ma? Nan-something-ba? Nan-so-ba?

Then all the pennies dropped at once. Minamisoma. A relatively small town whose name is now indelibly etched into memories worldwide due to its unfortunate location twenty kilometres north of a certain former nuclear power facility in Fukushima Prefecture. The tables were part of a decontamination zone, and the place the ‘game’ had dropped me was inside the exclusion zone set up after the nuclear disaster in mid-March 2011. A tight sensation spread across my chest. I closed the browser window and went quiet for several minutes.

Fukushima coast from the air
Fukushima coast from the air

Just after I started this blog I made a short post on the Miraikioku project Google are involved in, which seeks to preserve memories – and imagine the future – of the Tohoku region in Japan. Since then, I’ve become increasingly interested in the role of Google’s Maps and Street View tools in documenting the situation in the Tohoku region, especially with regard to the ongoing efforts to remediate and decontaminate the land in the immediate vicinity of the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant. In 2013, Google released Street View imagery of much of the evacuated area, in addition to updated photography for parts of Tohoku showing the ongoing reconstruction efforts (or otherwise). Spurred on by the way I felt upon realising I’d been dropped into an off-limits area, I’m now starting to wonder about the implications of releasing these kinds of shots into the public domain. I am thinking in particular here about landscapes of stigma, and the role of imagery in stigmatisation of places and the people within them.

One touchstone for me as I start to read round these thoughts is Karen Parkhill, Catherine Butler and Nick Pidgeon’s (2013) work on landscapes and discourses of stigma around large energy developments, particularly their suggestion that stigma may be felt when people feel changes in their landscape are imposed on them without any choice in the matter. I’d like to think more about whether this can be extended – for energy infrastructure – into whether publics have choice over how their ‘energy landscapes’ are represented to the wider world. I’ve also been fascinated by a study Martin Power and colleagues (2013) published based on representations on Street View of the Moyross area of Limerick, which has set me wondering about why the decision was taken to map evacuated areas of Fukushima Prefecture and what the motivations were for doing so. Lastly, Michael Edelstein’s work on the social dimensions of contamination is really helping to guide me into a new field of literature that puts a different spin on some of the work I’ve done thus far on carbon dioxide storage.

fuelmixRight now, I have nothing but questions about the direction in which to take this work. Is it right to take some kind of voyeuristic pleasure from gawping at shots of homes, valued landscapes and livelihoods abandoned in haste – especially when (according to my last electricity bill) 1% of the power that keeps my own computer running comes from nuclear power? Does the Street View mapping of the area around the nuclear facility serve only to reinforce negative perceptions of north-east Japan, an area getting back on its feet after the events of 2011? Does the continued presence of images taken almost one year ago do disservice to the ongoing decontamination, cleanup and reconstruction efforts around the plant? Or, can projects like this help to visualise some of the risks and challenges associated with producing electricity? Could tools like this act as a springboard for discussions over distributional and procedural justice, helping to close the cognitive distance between energy production and our everyday lives?

Either way, the potential for stigma from large-scale energy infrastructure is something I’ve wanted to explore further for some time. This small project – which I’ll be working on over the next few months with a view to using it as a starting point for more comparative work with Japan in the coming years – should hopefully help to put some of the ideas I’ve had running round my head into a very real context.

Update 04/04/14 – the Japan Times is carrying an online piece today about the start of residents returning to Miyakoji, part of the Tamura district that was evacuated after the nuclear event – http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/04/03/national/nuclear-refugees-split-over-return-to-tamura/


Edelstein M.R (2002) ‘Contamination: The Invisible Built Environment’ in Bechtel R.B and Churchman A (eds) Handbook of Environmental Psychology John Wiley and Sons: Chichester pp 559-588.

Parkhill K, Butler C and Pidgeon N (2013) ‘Landscapes of threat? Exploring Discourses of Stigma arond Large Energy Developments’ Landscape Research DOI: 10.1080/01426397.2013.775232

Power M.J, Neville P, Devereux E, Haynes A and Barnes C (2013) ”Why bother seeing the world for real?’: Google Street View and the representation of a stigmatised neighbourhood’ New Media and Society 15: 1022-1040.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s