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Sunday, November 4, 2012
Current Affairs ... Personal Reflections ...

When I was a kid growing up in suburban New Jersey back in the late 1950s and 1960s, I had a thing about disasters. Big snowstorms, floods, riots, nuclear war – I saw it on TV, and it looked like fun! Day to day life in Jersey just seemed so plain, so predictable, so dull. Why not rattle the china a bit, see what happens? Sure, some people get hurt, but others become heros. Why shouldn’t I get in on that?

Sidenote on the nuclear war part – although I was only 9 years old and in 4th grade during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I knew just what was going on and followed it with great interest. I was a natural hole-digger as a kid, always loved to get out a shovel and create a pit of some sort. I had a big excavation project going when Kennedy decided to call Khrushchev out for putting nukes on our southern shores, and a day or two later my mother asked me when I was going to fill it in. I told her that I was going to keep it until the missiles are gone from Cuba – a ready place to hide if I was out in the backyard and those sneaky Reds unexpectedly shot one at near-by Manhattan! (Like a 4 foot hole would protect me from a megaton H-bomb going off 10 miles away.) My mother was taken aback by my response, and I got to keep the hole unfilled for a few more days.

Ah, the naivete of youth. We didn’t suspect that societies are frail and can collapse, no idea that it was even possible. Even thought I knew a little better than most kids about the ins and outs of airports, train yards, trucking warehouses, water pumping stations, sewage treatment plants and oil refineries (all visible during a drive with our folks down the NJ Turnpike), I had no idea just how difficult it would be to start all these things from scratch and get them working together as a chorus, a chorus of industrial infrastructure. I never gave any thought what it would be like if any of this stuff were to just vanish; that could never happen, this stuff was a God-given right. Right?

Aside from that little nuclear war scare back in 1962 (and the weekly reminder every Saturday afternoon thereafter when they tested the air-raid warning sirens), we had no reason to suspect that maybe things could break down. Every third or fourth September, we would get a day off from school while a hurricane passed near the Jersey coast. It was never anything to worry about – you’d stay inside and play while it rained heavily outside, the trees would bend a bit in the wind, then in the evening after it passed you’d go outside to see if anything had changed. About the biggest change I could remember was when a tall sunflower plant that my mother had grown next to the backyard tomato garden had toppled over. We might lose electric power for a few hours, but it would always be back by the next day.

I guess that we got our first hint that the everyday things we took for granted might not really be guaranteed was in the 1973 oil embargo, when the long lines formed at the local gas stations (around those stations that were open, that is; it was kind of creepy seeing once busy gas stations shut and quiet with “NO GAS” signs). But after a few months, that all went away. Things got back to normal. It was just a bad dream (except that it happened again around 1980; but once again, the situation resolved itself with nothing much worse than a lot of inconvenience and a fist-fight here and there).

In the 1980s, just when the nightmare of a cataclysmic war with the Soviets seemed to be receding, a series of films came out about what it would in fact be like in an average American town if the red buttons were ever pushed. I remember watching “The Day After” and “Testament” when I was in my 30’s, and they really bothered me (as did the show “Jericho” a few years back). Our civilized, urbanized, mechanized, systematized society really could fall apart after all. And once it did, it would get very ugly very quickly. It wasn’t going to be fun like a camping trip or a heroic expedition. People were going to get nasty and hurt and sick, maybe even die; or be cast into abject poverty if they did survive.

Over the past few years, it seems like societal collapse has made some new cameo appearances in my world. There was 9-11, of course; I saw the towers burning from afar, and was amazed and chilled to think that I have lived to see war, war right here in America. But OK, that situation healed up after a while (with all respect owed to the 2000 souls who lost their lives in that horror, along with those who depended upon them).

Then the weather got a bit rough; the winter of 2010 was quite brutal in terms of snowfall; we were one snowstorm away from roads and parking areas that couldn’t be opened (nowhere left to put the snow), causing the shut-down of stores, mass transit, gas stations, schools, etc. Luckily, that snowstorm didn’t come. Then in 2011, we had another hurricane, named Irene; Irene was mostly a lot of rain, but still left many people in the dark for many days. Later that fall came the freak Halloween blizzard. That one was a real punch to the gut; I myself went without power for 5 days. Not exactly horrendous, but something I would never have expected, given how stable things were back when I was growing up.

And now we have Sandy. Here in Montclair, we were around 100 miles from the eye of the storm. And yet we (and everyone else across a wide swath of the NY – Philadelphia metro corridor) experienced several hours of wind gusts in the 75 – 85 MPH range. Nothing at all like the quick little pop-gun hurricanes that we saw back when I was a kid. I went outside during the heart of the storm, between 8:30 and 9:30 PM (I found a spot where the power lines and trees seemed fairly well secured), and experienced NOTHING like I’ve ever seen. The roar of the wind, the sheets of rain, the incredible, angry power surging across the sky; the on-going flashes of cloud lightening, looking nothing like the regular “quick flash” lightening usually seen. These flashes would linger for many seconds amidst the racing clouds, and would light up maybe a quarter of the otherwide foreboding dark-grey sky. Sometimes they would turn the dome of the sky an incredible shade of turquoise, like nothing I’ve even seen. Other displays were red-tinted, most were a dull white. Very un-earthly; like how you might imagine a storm in the red-spot of the planet Jupiter.

So on to the aftermath. Much damage, much disruption, much destroyed; unfortunately, at least 80 people lost their lives. And we are having much angst, now that our civilization isn’t working so well. The power company is not promising much in terms of how quickly they can get my town wired up again; maybe around this time next week, if we are lucky. Traffic lights are out, light and utility poles are toppled over, supermarkets are closed, gas stations are also closed. And yes, my old friend from the 1970s and 1980s, the long line of cars waiting for gas at the few stations that are still open, have made their glorious return. I’ve noticed that people have become more ‘squireley’; they drive more aggressively, trying to get there first – even if there’s nothing to get there first for. I barely avoided a car crash on Wednesday with someone who ran a red light. And I saw the aftermath of a toppled mobile crane that was ordered to help fix the roof where I work; it toppled over because the operator made some mistakes, probably took some short-cuts (luckily no one was hurt).

Yes, one can almost hear the refrains from “London Calling” by the Clash. Or how about this quote from a 2008 article that appeared in New Scientist, entitled “Are We Doomed?”:

What if the very nature of civilisation means that ours, like all the others, is destined to collapse sooner or later? A few researchers have been making such claims for years. Disturbingly, recent insights from fields such as complexity theory suggest that they are right. It appears that once a society develops beyond a certain level of complexity it becomes increasingly fragile. Eventually, it reaches a point at which even a relatively minor disturbance can bring everything crashing down. Some say we have already reached this point, and that it is time to start thinking about how we might manage collapse . . .

Hmmm. The world of today definitely is more complex than when I was a kid digging ditches in my back yard; complexity has grown relentlessly since that time, even accelerated (as predicted in the 1970 book Future Shock). One of the by-products of all the complex economic mechanisms that support our growing population is the increasingly voluminous extraction and burning of our earth’s carbon resources. Yes, I’m talking about global warming. For a while I had some doubts about this, and I still think that there is too much doomsday-mongering on the part of many scientists who are starving for political respect and recognition (and ditto for that great wanna-be scientist and failed politician, Al Gore).

BUT . . . the weather that we are experiencing here on the turf where I grew up is not the same weather we had back then. Something is different . . . and sure, climate does change naturally over time. Ice ages have came and went over the ages, tropical greenhouses too. But in a mere 50 years? I know that the scientists are still arguing over this point, and I totally respect and even revere the institution of empirically-based science. But I’m getting the creeps nonetheless by “what I smell in the wind”. (And so are some insurance companies.) An ill-wind, so it seems.

Every day I tune in to the radio and listen to reports on business and technology (Bloomberg Radio being a key listening post for me). And I’m amazed by all the human energy and brainpower going into making I-phones and I-pads do even more tricks and how super-duper “cloud-based” computer systems are changing the world. Data is everywhere (no more walking to the library to look up a fact or some figures – like I did when I was young – because Google and Amazon alone have many times the data that the average town library could provide).

And so are the brilliant young people who understand enough computer code and esoteric math theories to cobble together sophisticated decision models meant to safely guide their benefactors through the super-complex economic landscapes that our civilization has created. Take the case of mortgage financing for families wishing to settle on their own patch of real estate; over the years, our civilization took something relatively simple and straightforward, and stuffed it with intricate mechanisms involving a wide variety of investment managers and multi-national banks and insurance companies and private investors and government agencies. They and their bosses came up with devices such as tranch-segregated collateral financing obligations and default swap contracts and hedge fund positions. The models behind these schemes, built on rarefied math equations that swallowed wide swaths of real-world data, indicated that nothing could go wrong. Until 2007 came along, and then it did go wrong . . . quite splendidly (perhaps you would not use the word “splendid” if you lost your career in the Great Recession and still haven’t found another one).

Planet Earth, Human Civilization. Can I talk to you for a moment? All this complexity that you’ve engaged in over the past 100 years or so (and have really gone “pedal-to-the-metal” with in the past 20) is really groovy. I myself enjoy its many fruits. I like Google, I like smart phones, I like I like the idea that a lot of people were able to buy their own homes in the 1990s and early 2000’s, even though I myself remained just as happy to rent. But people . . . something’s wrong. I’m getting a little bit scared. Not that I have all that much longer to go on your planet, but still, I feel sorry for all the little kids I see today with their social networks and soccer leagues and other pre-defined activities directed through their I-phones. (These kids definitely don’t waste time digging holes in their familys’ back yards). If I’ve lived to see some crazy things, what are these kids going to see by the time they reach my age?

Perhaps some very wonderful things are in store for them (hopefully they will see humans striking out beyond the boundaries of our planet, as me and my peers enjoyed during the Project Apollo days). But what if the crazy stuff and instability keeps on coming? How long are those social “seams” that I took for granted when I was their age going to hold? What happens when they start to tear? How do you mend them? Can I ask, Planet Earth, is there some sort of way that you can divert some of the genius that is now planning out the umpteenth version of the Apple I-Phone or Google’s next cloud venture or Facebook’s next moniterization scheme, and divert it to getting ready for the bad days that might be coming?

A small example. Here in NJ, as in many places struck with natural disaster, we have many people losing food stored in the electric-powered refrigerators that they came to depend upon. A lot of that food could be saved if we could get blocks of ice (or better, dry ice) to store in all those refrigerators for a week or so. NJ Governor Christie gave a speech recommending dry ice for refrigerators. But where do you get it? The places that normally might have it are either sold out or are closed for lack of power, or require a long drive that you don’t want to take because of the gasoline shortage. Is there a way of organizing a plan to get dry ice to millions of refrigerators in a large metro area struck by natural disaster (or maybe not so natural – what if a terrorist group figures out how to bollox up the local power grid??). Right now, there is NOT any system organized to do this.

And what about all the houses that have no heat because all the modern furnace systems did away with the back-ups that could keep a house warm (e.g., the “millivolt” thermostat powered by a thermocouple strip heated by a pilot light); these were seen as inefficient and wasteful. So in the name of efficiency, a lot of people are now living in 50 degree houses (and when hurricanes hit down south during the summer, people probably suffocate in 100 degree homes). Sure, some homeowners have back-up generators; we need to start requiring some sort of back-up power system for every residence that depends upon electric power – i.e., basically every home in the USA. Our building codes should require that new homes and residential buildings be able to keep at least the climate control system and refrigerator going in every residence during a black-out. Gas-powered back-up generators are looking better and better for that role. Our nation needs better back-up generator technology for local homes (perhaps tied-in with solar panels on the roof) that will make them less dependent on a central power grid, versus another new kind of smart phone or video game experience.

Why isn’t more brainpower being allocated to stuff like this?

I can think of many answers to that question, many quite legitimate. But the one I like the least is probably the strongest point: UP TO NOW, WE DIDN’T THINK THAT IT WOULD EVER BE NECESSARY. (Like dis-allowing passengers with box cutters on airplanes, circa 2001.) Famous last words: It Couldn’t Happen Here.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:52 pm      

  1. Jim, So sorry that things have been so bad for you and yours due to the hurricane. I’ve been sending my good tho’ts your way in the hope that they will have the “butterfly effect”.

    I must say I 100% agree with you. What you are experiencing is as if there had been a war. America, different from almost every other country in the world, has been saved from a war. Well, that is, except for NYC which has had its share of horrendous bombings in the recent past and now this hurricane.

    I have been thinking, since Katrina ravished Louisiana, that the coasts (West, South, and East) likely are in a process of change. (The West has had its share of awful earthquakes.) The only thing one can do is adjust somehow to the change, make the necessary changes in life that allow for adaptation. But that does not mean, in any way at all, that any of that will be easy.

    And you are 100% right that putting all one’s eggs in one basket is ridiculous (that is, depending on electricity so thoroughly as we all do)—-particularly when the electric infrastructure has been so neglected, to say nothing of the damage Mother Nature can do. Such dependence is seriously misinformed and can be disastrous.

    Yet, oddly enough, there’s a kind of beauty and awesomeness in the storm as you described, when you stood out in the midst of it.

    If nothing else, good tho’ts coming your way that soon, soon! you will return to a semblance of normalcy. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — November 5, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

  2. Jim, And a second tho’t: It seems very obvious to me that the only way to make it through such a situation as is going on in NYC and NJ is for people to cooperate.

    I’ve heard some few stories a few days back of people pulling guns on other people to get something they wanted; and less vicious stories of people jumping in lines, becoming angry, etc. While some of that later emotional expression is understandable, in the end the really only way to get through something so traumatic is for people to cooperate.

    It does seem to me that cooperation, people helping people, is prevailing in these stricken areas. It’s a good thing to see. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — November 5, 2012 @ 7:29 pm

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