Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Without a stable public infrastructure, individualism, as we know it, is dead


Suppose one day, in fair weather and not during a brutal heat wave, all the power shuts out.  The first thing to do is make sure your car starts.  If it doesn’t and you didn’t leave the lights on, that’s big trouble. The same thing will have happened to your neighbors.

Or, imagine you are driving in a city’s trendy nightclub district, and suddenly all the lights go out, and your car dies.  And so does everyone else’s.  It’s “Pitch Black” (like the 2000 movie).

Of course, your cell phone won’t work.  In fact, if you have a laptop or iPad handy, it won’t boot up, either, even to work offline.

The grim reality would be that a major portion of the country has suffered an EMP attack from an electromagnetic pulse. A likely cause could be a high altitude nuclear weapon (with minimal actual blast), launched from an offshore missile by a terrorist, or possibly a rogue state (like North Korea or Iran).   Maybe this is the way an extraterrestrial alien invasion would start! In fact, conventional microwave-based military weapons than can do this exist and are in use by our Army in Afghanistan, and could disable whole cities or neighborhoods, should they fall into the wrong hands.  There’s a fictitious scene in the 2001 film “Oceans 11” where one is used in Las Vegas to enable a heist; and, no, the lights would not come back on as they do in the film.  (NBC's "The Revolution" this fall from J. J. Abrams gets it more or less right.)  The conservative newspaper “The Washington Times” has warned about these possibilities for a long time, and so has former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich (Issues blog, Sunday July 15).

It’s also possible that a massive, very prolonged blackout could happen because of an unusually large “Class X” solar storm – a solar flare emitting a gigantic coronal mass ejection, such as what happened in 1859, before we had a power grid (the Carrington Event).  It’s unlikely that cars and consumer electronics themselves would be damaged (unless plugged in).  But – it’s at least possible.  And, it looks like we dodged a bullet late this Spring; the Earth had revolved out of the way of a major explosion just in time.

As Newt Gingrich pointed out recently, we cannot afford to “blow our infrastructure” just for short-term profit gains – something utility companies have been accused of since the widespread outages caused by the derecho.  We’re familiar with this sort of rhetoric already in the debate over nuclear power safety, and the horrors that happened in Japan in 2011.

There is a lot that can be done to “ground” properly major parts of the civilian power grid to protect it from EMP or solar storms.  But it looks like we haven’t even started doing it.  The Pentagon has indeed protected its own.

What about other modes of “The Purification”?  We could probably deflect most asteroids and comets, as long as we saw them in time.  (We could do better there.)  Remember the movies “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact”?  We couldn’t do anything to stop the Yellowstone  (or Mono Lake) supervolcano from exploding, but that’s orders of magnitude less likely than a Carrington-style solar storm. A dangerous sword for the East Coast sits across the Atlantic in the Canary Islands in the Cumbre Vieja volcano which, if it erupted big-time, could cause an underwater landslide that could hurl a 300-foot tsunami to the US East Coast, with about eight hours’  notice for evacuation.  Maybe underwater engineering projects can be conceived to prevent this possibility.

When I was “coming of age” and a patient at the National Institutes of Health in 1962 for my fake “reparative therapy”, I learned about the October Cuban Missile Crisis when I went to GWU classes at night.  I knew about this, but it seemed as though the other patients and staff had no clue.  It struck me that a post-nuclear world, even if survivable, would make all of us into burdens.  It would not be worth living in.
And there is little doubt in my mind that the severity of recent extreme weather events (the tornadoes, derechoes, and wildfires) are related to human-caused carbon dioxide emissions.  We are starting to see exposure to uninsurable levels of risk from superstorms in areas that normally don’t see them.

That brings me to my own “Big Point”:  I do work “on my own”; I am “solo”, but my independence might be illusory, because it’s becoming increasingly apparent that my own capability to “succeed on my own” depends on an infrastructure which others “sacrifice” to maintain (I could not do a utility lineman’s job), and about which we are becoming increasingly (if understandably) careless.

I didn’t worry about this much in times past.  When I lived in a modern high rise in Minneapolis from 1997-2003 (The Churchill, downtown, on the Skyway), the power went out only once in six years.  I never gave severe storms a thought – and they are common in Minnesota in summer.  (Cable  and newer high speed Internet sometimes went out for a while simply because it needed to be maintained and was not as stable in those days.)  I did give terror a lot of thought after 9/11, simply because of what seemed to be the existential nature of the threat.

But, in other cities where I’ve lived – like Dallas and Minneapolis – power stability seemed not to be so much an issue.  The utilities’ systems are newer (I very nearly got IT employment with one in Dallas). Another reason was that most newer residential neighborhoods in heartland cities had few trees.  

On the other hand, when I lived in New York City, I endured a 24 hour blackout in 1977, and six weeks without telephone service that year after a NYTel facility fire.

I think when people buy property in the more distant suburbs or in rural areas, they expect more risk (than city people) and expect family and neighborhood “social capital” to tide people over in hard times.  They tend not to expect the absolute autonomy of single people in large cities or modern suburban centers.  There is not the expectation that you can leave “adaptive” concerns on the rest of the world and just stay in your own world. 

In fact, it strikes me, as I think back to my upbringing, that a lot of “moral training” was not simply about the narrow idea of personal responsibility as modern libertarians see it, it was about socialization and fitting in to the adaptive needs of a family and community.  Choice and responsibility weren’t seen as corollaries as they are today; they were seen as opposites (as with a curious script line in the latest “Spider-Man” movie).   A man protected women and children because that was his natural (or “God-assigned”) responsibility, not just because he made a choice to have children.

In my own life, “personal autonomy” became salvation.  I avoided many conventional relationships (most heterosexual courtship, after a brief period in the early 1970s) because I saw it as potentially humiliating.  My independence would, like a chess gambit, take on a moral double edge.  I could be wasteful in my use of resources as a singleton, but so could many families that escaped to the exurbs and endured long commutes.  I could avoid conventional (“soap opera”) jealousy and rivalry, but make other uncomfortable with the visible face of my fantasy world (an issue at William and Mary and NIH).   My writing, as I noted, could help “keep them honest” and counter corruption, but sometimes (as I noted yesterday) others would resent my visibility and confront me with questioning why I didn’t show more “compassion” for them and wasn’t more interested in being a personal role model for others anyway.

I do have a sense that “socialization” meant a positive expectation: that, despite my own “competitive” shortcomings (as a youngster), I would find satisfaction in a relationship with someone with needs visible in “my neighborhood”.  It was a demand for complementarity.  (Whether it needs to be heterosexual is another discussion.)  I certainly “walked away” and signed on to the idea of “being your own man” before expecting a “relationship” of any kind.  That’s also double edged:  self-definition outside of family can lead to more innovation (and jobs), but can make families and communities less cohesive and less able to sustain themselves or survive external calamities (or to survive the sacrifices that sometimes get demanded of people, as in war).  In more recent years, we’ve seen that socialization,  committed marriages and tight families are necessary not just for lineage, but for supporting the recent challenges of long lifetimes and (as Dr. Oz points out) enabling people to survive medical events in much better shape than before.  And now we see the idea that social structure is necessary to recover from public catastrophes that perhaps don’t have to happen.  I have always taken exception to such ideas (particularly the commitment that gets someone to “love you back” in case of hardship that could be caused by others). 

I do have a compound project to finish.  To be successful, and to get my screenplays and books into a successful commercial space, I need to travel (to get “data”) and then spend a lot of subsequent time at home holed up to “do the work”.  I cannot succeed if continually distracted by “adaptive” problems.  The infrastructure around me needs to stay up and work.  And, yes, I depend on other companies to provide reliable customer service.  I had to supply it myself when I was working in a conventional job before “retiring”, and now, I see the “customer service” issue from the other side – it’s essential for me (and anyone who works largely alone) to succeed.  I don’t have the economy of scale to survive destructive events.  And I don’t have the social support to survive any major medical challenges or to recover from destruction caused by others.  (I realize that I can, of course, cause my own undoing; that is true for anyone, always.)   Mishaps and failures that don’t have to happen can have real consequences, particularly in my age and circumstances. 

Infrastructure and global stability – these are all big time policy issues that go beyond usual libertarian thinking, and we must address them.  And some of them can indeed affect our own personal habits and even the execution of our own goals.


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