Friday, August 10, 2012

Solar storm, EMP risks: lack of preparedness threatens basis of individualism

Recently, on my Books blog, I’ve reviewed a “future history” novel about the possible aftermath of a huge EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack on the United States, and yesterday I reviewed a National Academy of Sciences booklet on the danger from solar storms.

The NAS makes the strong point that our economy is based on short-term profitability, and that businesses and individuals generally do not take into account preparedness for rare but “high consequence” events.  Even now, the conventional property insurance industry is having trouble coping with unpredictable asymmetric risks as well as a gradual upscaling of losses that may well accompany climate change.

Although there is a lot of talk of family disaster preparedness, which is taken seriously in parts of the country regularly exposed to torndoes and hurricanes, many people would find fielding the effort to be prepared for everything as too distracting from the focus they need on their own priorities in their own individual lives.

Despite the grim scenarios suggested by the books mentioned above, a large but still largely regional catastrophe is much more likely (in practice) to happen than the total destruction of the entire country’s power and technology grid.  For example, solar storms would probably affect northern latitudes more and do the most damage in the population centers of the northeast and perhaps Great Lakes area.  Government policy makers would face unprecedented issues in handling the very unequal burdens faced by different parts of the country, on the scale of perhaps ten Katrinas.
How would the infrastructure for the commercial Internet as we know it function if there were major regional damage to the power grid?  Many large companies, like Facebook and Google, say that have built redundancies into multiple server farms all over the country.  Many of the newer servers tend to be located farther south, like in North Carolina or nearby in Ashburn, VA, which may make them a bit less vulnerable specifically to the solar storm risk.

Still, the banking system would be challenged to continue operating properly.  And Silicon Valley companies, predicated on media streaming and user-generated content, could be unable to continue supporting their “free services”.  The whole paradigm of UGC could change, and eventually new legal challenges (like to downstream liability exemptions) could arise.

Individual content generators  need to think about specific ways they can prepare to safeguard their work.  Optical storage (CD’s) is safer than thumb drives or the “Cloud” in guarding against any EMP risk.

There is something to be said by having some investment in the “bricks and mortar” world.  Maybe authors would do well to maintain an inventory of their published works in print form, and the idea of “just in time” production should not be carried too far.  Maybe we have gone too far in investing in instant gratification technologies that are rather trivial in long-term importance.  The dot-com bust proved that once, and the concept of electronic social networking may have been taken so far already as to become essentially a way to feed compulsions.

For many people, today’s culture supports the idea of “proving yourself” on your own before offering yourself in a committed relationship with someone and starting or maintaining a family. It also supports being choosy or “selective” about the relationships you expect (or allow). All of that is predicated on a stable public infrastructure that has been hardened or made robust against sudden stresses, even though short-term economic thinking often undercuts making the investment it takes to protect infrastructure from rare or improbable risks.  It’s also predicated on the notion that stability will enable one to purse one’s own particular talents, and not be burdened with adaptive demands requiring rarely-used real world skills.  Yet in most cultures, where privacy expectations are less or not possible to meet, people accept the idea that they need to accept people into their lives and need others in a practical way to survive, and need to be open to the idea of possible sacrifices so that others (usually lineage) can carry on after them.  Today, to some people, like me, such an idea seems humiliating.

See related post July 17.  

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