Monday, May 13, 2013

Our top priority right now: stability and security of the power grid: and it's a technical issue before it's a socia or politicall one

I’ll be reviewing a new book by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, “The New Digital Age”, and, yes, I can be swept away by the way digital space is providing a new universe for our lives. 
But I also think that there are a few issues we need to focus on to make sure we sustain “life as we know it”.  And a few of the issues seem to have more substance and credibility than others.

One of the most critical is the stability and security of the power grid.  There are reports from places that sound credible (the National Academy of Sciences, and Oak Ridge National Laboratories, as well as right-wing columnists and politicians, even Newt Gingrich) that major parts of our country could suffer disruptions of shutdowns, with tragic results, for years form a terrorist electromagnetic pulse strike (WMP), which could be deployed more locally in smaller weapons.  It’s not completely clear to me that it is as easy for “amateurs” to make and deploy these devices (like radio frequency and flux guns, which are all non-nuclear) as a few pundits claim – but certainly the debate following the Boston tragedy will invoke debate on the subject.   It ought to take stage with the gun debate.  (Why hasn’t it happened in the Middle East?)   Perhaps even more ominous is a danger from nature – solar storms or “flares”, with huge coronal mass ejections, on the scale of the 1859 Carrington Event.  They happen, but most miss the Earth.  Every hundred years or so, we can have a CME that hits our magnetosphere directly and is large enough to do long-lasting grid to the power grid.

A good question, or course, is, what, from a technical viewpoint, should power companies do (besides paying dividends to shareholders, including me) to harden their grids – especially huge transformers – from such events or threats.  Should homeowners or property managers do anything?  I think we should be debating the engineering and science before the sociology and  politics. I’m not prepared for a world of “doomsday preppers”.  Obviously the huge tech companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc) belong in the debate.

Of course, I grew up with doomsday debates – the Cold War.  The Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded while I was a “patient” at NIH, and I, since I went into DC to school at night, was the only one who followed what was going on.  There are reports (from PBS -- "The Man Who Saved the World" -- Oct. 23, 2012, TV blog) that one Russian submarine commander could have chosen to  ignite WWIII but there are other reports that say the historical accounts of Kennedy’s actions are overblow,   More recently, after 9.11, there was renewed debate on the idea that asymmetric actors could launch nuclear blasts (which produce an EMP effect if at high enough alitutde), or “radiation dispersion devices”.  The possibility has been mentioned in conjunction with North Korea.

But the possibility of a precipice has always influence our “moral” thinking. There is a notion that if families are weak or social capital is lacking because of “hyper-individualism”, a society is more vulnerable to attack from an ideological enemy that wants to prove something. That bears on someone like me, because those of us who are “different” but powerful in unusual ways benefit from “hyper-individualism” and perhaps tend to invite potentially dangerous indignation from those who are displaced by it. 

Global warming and climate change – and I think the science (starting with Al Gore, it you must – even if he didn’t invent the Internet) is almost beyond question.  The world will change.  But, compared to the threats above, climate change is gradual, although it can cause huge local catastrophes that can test social capital in a society unprepared for it.

But that’s one reason why power grid stability, as an issue, needs top priority from journalists and bloggers, even right now.

The “social capital” area has one huge challenge whose public debate is still diffuse.  That’s “demographic winter”.  We are not producing enough children to support our elderly, as we live longer.  Specifically, that problem produced a flap in 2012 about filial responsibility laws, (in about 30 states), which produced an uptick in my own blog stats last spring when I reported on a Pennsylvania case (John Pittas) regarding these laws.  By and large, we see the debate reflected more in “entitlement” reform (Social Security, Medicare), and even sequestration and the debt ceiling. 

From a social point of view, we’re learning something we knew 50 years ago but somewhat forgot. People have to learn to take care of one another, besides themselves.  That rises to a moral issue, but it isn’t quite the same issue as “personal responsibility” as libertarians see it, or as following through with the consequences of one’s “choices” (like having children).  There are some responsibilities (filial) we will have anyway, and that observation could have a profound effect on how we see marriage.  Yet, that point got completely overlooked in the gay marriage debate. 

I got started in publishing and later blogging over a single issue, “gays in the military” (aka “don’t ask don’t tell”), how that related to conscription in the past, and how that related to all our ideas of individual liberty and balancing those to the needs of the group.  That issue seems largely settled today (maybe not enough for complacency), but two biggies that I have found (power grid, filial responsibility) seem now centric to my attention.
I can reflect also on how we see the “urgency” of issues.  The power issue I mention today is partly technical, and lends itself to objective examination, outside of the parameters of group emotions or moral ideology.  That assessment needs to happen quickly.  On the other hand, we often see politicians and pundits claiming that society will collapse when some new “rights” are recognized or reinterpreted in a new way.  No, heterosexual marriage won’t collapse because of gay marriage, and neither will “society”.  But  a technological future, so promising for democracy and equality, as outlined in the book from Google’s former CEO, could take a huge setback if we don’t tend to  our infrastructure now – and in that sense, the continued sequestration (the way it plays out) amounts to a serious national security problem.  And there is a moral issue that impacts individuals like me – our resilience, our ability to step up to the needs of others when we really have to.  Without that expectation from us, “meaning” starts to become diffuse, others make real sacrifices, and indignation and instability grows, sometimes to the point of being dangerous.  

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