February 26th, 2010

In the powerless dark

It’s nighttime and the power’s still out, although right now I’m in another part of town where the lights are as bright as usual. I’m sitting in a coffee shop loaded with people, many of them—like me—busy keyboarding away at their computers and charging their cellphones.

So it’s easy to pretend that all’s well, and that I just happened to decide tonight to write this essay amidst a lot of unaccustomed company.

But the truth is that in an hour or so I’ll unplug my laptop, get into my car, and drive home. Just a few blocks away the streets will suddenly darken, even the traffic signals will go off, and the cars will slow down and practice the quaint courtesies of stopping at busy corners to let each other pass.

When I arrive home, there will only be the full moon and a few stars to light my way, plus a flashlight once my car lights have been turned off. And I will marvel once again, as I did last time the power went out for days, at how dark the night is, and how bright the moon. Then I’ll go inside to featureless rooms, with only the flashlight (or the odd candle) to guide me. Neither illuminates much, but it will be enough.

How many electrical aids I usually rely on at night! Without them, I’m not only without light and heat, but I’m also without entertainment, except what’s provided by my mind. I can talk to friends, but only on my cell phone, and I need to make sure I charge it during the day so it won’t run out of juice at night. I can listen to my iPod—but again, musn’t waste the charge. TV is out, of course, as is my usual companion, the internet. Friends huddle in their own homes, which seem more far away than ever. A hot shower is an unimaginable luxury, a cold one too shivery to contemplate.

And even this precarious existence depends on two things: batteries, and the existence of a world outside that hasn’t lost its power. I can still go to a grocery store and get supplies, and even go to a place like this one where I’m sitting right now, having bought hot food and plugged in my computer. At night, the things that now keep me company—several flashlights, a transistor radio, the little travel clock I bought a while back from Brookstone’s (the one that makes all sorts of sounds like crickets chirping or the ocean roar)—are all powered by batteries, of which I have a huge but not inexhaustible supply.

And I know that in a day or two the power will come back on again. If it doesn’t happen by tomorrow, I probably will journey an hour or two to stay with a friend or relative, and then return when all’s well. There is really nothing to worry about. But every power failure drives home—in a way that is impossible to ignore—how very far we’ve come from being able to rely on our own resources to survive.

67 Responses to “In the powerless dark”

  1. guy Says:

    A perfect time to brush up on your pillaging skills. :P

  2. vanderleun Says:

    I’m lighting a candle for you. No, make that one thousand candles.

  3. neo-neocon Says:

    guy: That’s funny. I was just thinking of the poem “The Highwayman:”

    The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
    The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
    The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
    And the highwayman came riding—
    The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

  4. rickl Says:

    Hmm. I’ve never thought of going somewhere else when my power goes out. I’ll have to keep that in mind.

    Usually I just hunker down and read a book, if it’s light enough. But reading by candlelight is unpleasant and my eyes aren’t very good to begin with. LED flashlights are good to have. They put out much more light than candles, and their batteries last much longer than incandescent flashlights.

    Often, though, when the power goes out at night and it doesn’t look like it’s going to come back on anytime soon, I just go to bed.

    Luckily I haven’t lost power during any of this winter’s storms. I was on the southern edge of the current one and only got 3-6″ of snow last night. I didn’t get the brunt of it.

  5. Richard Cook Says:

    Beware the EMP strike!

  6. dustoffmom Says:

    Can’t stress enough the luxury of having a few oil lamps in the house. They put off a gorgeous light and are so much brighter than candles. I have nearly a dozen, wish I could get a few to you right now. Put them on your list and pick up a couple for next time. Stay warm!

  7. MikeLL Says:

    It sucks to be a slave to modern technology. Everything is awesome so long as it works, but when it doesn’t work you suddenly realize how dependent you are.

    I usually light a bunch of candles and sit with a flashlight reading a book. Nothing much else to do.

  8. betsybounds Says:

    This is the sort of thing that reminds us of how fine a line it is that separates us from what is and what-might-be, from civilization and primitiveness (Richard Cook’s EMP mention is apt). Our family experienced something similar years ago when a Texas-landfall hurricane took us off the grid for a few days. Most of us are unprepared for more than a very temporary lapse.

    Neo, I really like your mention of “quaint courtesies.” One is really glad that they persist, and come out in force at times like these. We need them most of all in tight times–they keep us human. Of such is civilization, finally, made.

    But as long as we know the interruptions are temporary, there is something grand about the black night sky, the moon, and the stars, and the clarity with which we see them at times like these. As long as we know the interruptions are temporary.

  9. Mr. Frank Says:

    Being without power in the north in the winter gets miserably cold in short order. After Hurricane Katrina we were without power for two weeks. Without air conditioning the 90 degree temps were unpleasant but not dangerous. We were also without water for a week because the pumps were not operating.

    In cold climates you have to seek warmth.

  10. geran Says:

    keep the faith

    spring is just around the corner–global warming

    (sorry, still laughing)

  11. betsybounds Says:

    Mr. Frank, I don’t really disagree with what you say, but don’t overlook the dangers of extreme, unrelieved heat–remember those 15,000 or so elderly Frenchmen who died of hyperthermia in a recent summer.

    On the other hand, you make the perhaps unintended point that, AGW fears to the contrary notwithstanding, cold is nearly always the greater danger!

  12. jon baker Says:

    too many of the building these days are designed in such a way that ac is a (near) necessity- not enough cross venilation . Many apartments have only one outside wall-that does not cool very well at all without fans or AC.

  13. jon baker Says:

    “At night, the things that now keep me company”- my personal list includes a 12 Gauge shotgun.

  14. jon baker Says:

    ….with a 30-30 rifle as a spare.

  15. jon baker Says:

    With a large emp strike the US would be in a world of hurt real quick!

    And dont discount civil unrest as being able to knock out the power in local areas.

    We see the writing on the wall so to speak- we should all be preparing for when the lights go out, imho.

  16. Artfldgr Says:

    The luxuries we are used to sit upon a fragile base of stability. We feel freedom is the norm, and that base is solid, but the truth is freedom is not the norm, and the base is always days away from more base existence.

  17. kcom Says:

    This is what we’re talking about when people go around cavalierly proposing cutting fossil fuel use by 80% in some inordinately short time frame. It’s no joke. This would be the result. Millions of people would be living in the Dark Ages again. Properity, health, safety, efficiency would all be knocked backwards by decades. Again it’s no joke.

    I’m not saying this as a cry baby whiner. I lived in rural Africa for a couple of years and though in theory I had electricity and running water both would sometimes disappear without warning for several weeks at a time. The electricity more so than the water. We were prepared with kersoene lamps and kerosene stoves and stored up water, and life went on, but it definitely put a crimp in things. There’s a reason that stuff is considered a sign of progress.

  18. david foster Says:

    The last power outage here inspired me to write this post: Networks, which discusses the multiple networks on which we are dependent for our well-being and even our survival, and the interdependencies among these networks.

  19. jon baker Says:

    In Kosovo, where I spent 18 months total over two rotations courtesy of Uncle Sam, the electrical power was intermittent in many areas. They had never installed individual electric meters- whole neighborhoods were on one meter. So if enough people did not pay up, they shut the whole neighborhood down. Kinda killed individual initiative- no need to keep paying your bill if your neighbors could not. So the power company never had enough money- and quite frankly could not have kept all the lights on if everybody paid without expanding generation capacity- which takes money they did not receive. People turned to wood- but the government required every tree to be approved by the forest guy before being cut- and then required a stamp on every log before transportation. The stamps, to cut your own trees, required money- which the people often did not have. so wood smuggling became a big buisiness. Many of the Us soldiers would help inspect for stamps and hold trucks till the local police came to confiscate it. I tried to discourage American participation in this activity. as saw the people were between a rock and a hard place. The only time i felt ok about American participation was when the smugglers were stealing trees from someone else.

  20. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    Our society floats on a sea of reliable, reasonably priced energy. Each year technology drives us further into dependence on that energy. That is why the cavalier claims by the enviros that we can reduce our fossil fuel usage dramatically in 10-15 years are so patently loony.

    Here in Puget Sound we are experiencing an unusually warm, dry winter. Have not had one power outage thus far.(Knock wood.) Normally we can count on two to four per winter with anywhere from one to five days of outage. We are well equpped with battery powered lanterns and butane stoves from our camping equipment. (Not used much anymore, but handy.) Many here have standby generators that come on when the power goes out because it is such a common occurance.

    When I was a teen and backpacking all over the Colorado Rockies, I used to revel in the beautiful nights in the mountains. On clear nights the stars were glorious and in August we saw the meteor showers that John Denver made famous in his song, “Rocky Mountain High.” (I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky!”) As an airline pilot it was a treat to fly at night. How great to see the northern lights spread from horizon to horizon, the startling explosion of missiles launched at Vandenberg Air Force Base, the total, inky darkness of night under an overcast in the Pacific, the lights of Denver from 35,000 feet and 100 miles west, and much more. Now, as my youth and health recede, the night has become a time to stay safely cocooned at home. Driving at night is avoided if possible because I don’t see as well as I did. More dependent on the miracles of energy to sustain us and keep us going a few more years with each passing year.

    For all those suffering in the power outage back east. We feel your pain. We know our turn is coming – maybe later this year or next winter for sure.

  21. huxley Says:

    In cold climates you have to seek warmth.

    As a kid I grew up in the sunbelt. I was always reading and occasionally I would run into the phrase “died of exposure” and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what that meant. A super bad sunburn?

    Of course I eventually did figure out. Then after college I moved to Boston and the reality hit me at the gut level.

    You could die just by being outside. Imagine!

  22. Gringo Says:

    I have been on the receiving end of winter power outages. Without electricity, furnaces don’t run. Neo, I hope you have a fireplace. From the last major power outage I experienced, of 3 days in December due to an ice storm, even with a fireplace, the kitchen/dining room got down to 45.

    Which is why those in northern climes layer and layer and layer their clothing.

  23. jack Says:

    Working for an electric utility we don’t worry too much about “home life” when the lights go out … we go to work.

  24. Nate Whilk Says:

    “how very far we’ve come from being able to rely on our own resources to survive.”

    It depends on how well you’ve prepared (I’m no better prepared than you are). Now take “J.J. formerly Jimmy J.” THAT’s being prepared.

  25. SteveH Says:

    For a good kick in the gut try having your power cut off from lack of funds to pay the bill. Happened to me a few months back for the first time in my 50 years. I can’t really describe what it was like for a couple days listening to my battery powered radio inform me that democrats were really sticking it to the evil rich people, while i could literally see the daily prospects of me earning a modest living evaporate with every speech these ass backward politicians gave.

  26. expat Says:

    In Germany they have something called Kachelofens, which are tiled stoves. A man who builds them has a shop near me, where he displays his ingenious craft. He has one central stove that is similar to a cook stove, and the heat generated is moved via masonry “pipes” to other areas of the house. Essentially, you have one wood- or coal-burning heat source that enables stove top cooking, baking, and heating other rooms. They are covered in various types of plain or decorated tile, so they can look great. Here is a German site about them, but they show modern versions:


    Click on Bildgallerie and then Kachelherd and you get an idea of what you can do. Our local builder also does more traditional designs appropriate to the half-timbered (Fachwerk) houses of our area. They vent heat to several rooms. Once the mass of masonry heats up, it provides a constant source of warmth.

    Here is an American source for woodstoves etc.


    The company sells to the Amish who are off the grid, so you may find some other nifty non-electric survival items.

    I sometimes fantasize about having a house in the country with a small survival cabin out back complete with wood-burning stove and a survival pantry. Naturally it would have piles of quilts and good cast iron soup pots. And a library.

  27. expat Says:

    When my mom was a kid, she spent a lot of time with her neighbors. They had a working farm, and he was principal of the local high school, so they were considered well off. They had a big kitchen with a cookstove that opened to the dining room with a sofa and chairs in addition to a big table. The parlor was down a short hallway and was rarely used. Mom told me that in winter, sides of beef were hung from the ceiling in the parlor because it was so cold. Mrs. C would go in and cut off a big hunk for Sunday dinner. I don’t know what they did with the meat when the preacher came to call.

    I loved visiting them as a kid and then hearing Mom’s tales about how they cooked and managed the animals. It was certainly more upscale than the Little House on the Prarie, but the skills used weren’t all that different.

  28. physicsguy Says:

    Several of the previous posters have it right: civilization is dependent on energy. A switch to so-called alternative sources would let all of us experience the thrill of rolling blackouts, etc.

    In physics we rank sources by a quantity known as the energy density; watts/m^2, joules/kg, etc. When you do such for wind and solar and compare to fossil, nuclear (the clear winner), and hydro, it becomes very apparent why such energy sources are no more than 1% of the US total. Despite what the Dems say, to quote Montgomery Scott (Star Trek) “Cap’n, I canna change the laws of physics!”

  29. Sergey Says:

    This is a systemic failure of US power grid if it can be knocked out by such trivial reason as snowstorm. In Russia there is a snowstorm every week from November to March, and in my memory there were NO blackouts in Moscow during more than half of a century.

  30. Cappy Says:

    Blame Bush.

  31. Sergey Says:

    More thick cables (and more heavy pylons) means not only more structural stability of the grid, but also less energy losses due ohmic resistance. I was shocked to aknowlege that in USA 15% losses for this reason are tolerated. The norm in Russia is 3%. It is scandalous that the first country in the world to introduce Nikolay Tesla 3-phase system of alternating current cannot keep its power grid in workable condition in any weather.

  32. Mr. Frank Says:

    J.J. — You paint well with words

    Sergey — The vulnerability of our power grid comes from above ground lines. When trees fall, they take the lines down. Putting power lines underground is very expensive. Repairing or modifying underground lines is expensive and time consuming. Utility companies are privately owned but state regulated. Getting the go ahead to greatly increase rates to cover burying lines would be difficult. What we are left with is cheap power most of the time. Most people would choose that over a doubling of their electric bill. Americans use far more energy than Europeans. We like that.

  33. effess Says:

    Everyone take comfort. There is this Daily Express story, via Drudge. with this headline:


    Get ready for the Himalayan icecaps to resume melting as AGW gets “resettled”.

  34. expat Says:

    Mr. Frank,

    At least in Germany, there is also a difference in the population distribution. In Germany, people tend to live in villages, so that one buried line will serve many families. In America, there are many more fairly isolated houses and the cost of burying cables to reach them would be horrendous. I have a cousin who once rented a lovely old house next to a stream, but it was miles from the nearest main road. She had no telephone because neither she nor the phone company could afford installing even above ground lines.

  35. Tim P Says:

    I hope that your power comes back on soon.

    You might want to take this time to direct some thought to how to provision yourself so you can weather the next time with less disruption & hassle. Oil lamps, a ready store of batteries, stored food, water, a generator possibly. Reluctantly, even weapons, just incase.

    We have a 5KW generator that can run our entire home. Since we have a well, we’ll have water, but it’s still good to be able to store some water. Lots of visqueen and duct tape to seal broken windows (an earthquake and volcano hazard result). Gas? Keep your car tank topped. Hand tools. First aid kit. The list goes on.

    I’m not suggesting preparing for Armageddon, but simple preparation will enable you to continue on with minimal disruption during a prolonged outage and to possibly be in a position to help others, or at least sit and enjoy that book you’ve been meaning to read, if only you could find the time.

    Some good comments above. It got me thinking that preparedness is important not only in the practical sense, to enable us to keep on living, but a mental/philosophical sort of preparedness is also important to keep our society free & independent.

    Much as many people are unprepared to deal with the sudden loss or major disruption of the services required to power and enable their daily lives. Many people are equally unprepared to deal with the sudden loss of or assault on their freedoms which we have so come to take for granted and on which we so much depend.

    Anyway, as I said, hope the power comes back on soon.

  36. Capn Eddie Ricketyback Says:

    My little contribution to my own self-sufficiency is a 25 KW natural-gas powered automatic standby generator, which provides all the power I need for maintaining a normal lifestyle during power outages, including cooking, cleaning, etc. It’s a pretty good feeling to be able to continue to live in comfort and security when all outside is darkness and cold (in the winter) or heat (in the summer). It cost me $10,000 some six years ago, and I expect it to be serviceable for at least 4 more years and probably more. Amortized, not a huge price to pay for the benefits. Depending on what the extent of the power loss is, I sometimes have cable and sometimes not, in which case I fall back on my extensive collection of DVDs for entertainment. I also spend some of the time editing my web sites for posting after cable is restored or editing photos, of which I usually have a considerable backlog.

  37. Steve G Says:

    If the house gets really, really cold, don’t forget to open all the water taps slightly to prevent freezing in your hot and cold water pipes.

    You can get a smaller generator at Home Depot to run an appliance or two, such as a one room sized oil filled heater and maybe a light or two. Keep the generator outside when it is running and use extension cords. If you have a fireplace you might want to consider converting it to operate on natural gas, if gas lines run in your neighborhood. It might not look (or smell) as good as the real thing, but it sure can throw heat.

    Have fun.

  38. Skookumchuk Says:

    After spending a year working on Katrina, I went home and decided to get serious. MRE’s, water, water purification, lighting, auxiliary power – the whole bit.

    We’ve got plenty of trees in the back yard, two of which are now in pieces in the woodshed. What I’ve got in there now could provide plenty of heat in the evenings through a normal winter.

    Neo: We have several little Lehman’s olive oil lamps. They are surprisingly bright. Safe, simple too. You could make them yourself using one bought lamp as a pattern.

  39. Obloodyhell Says:

    > On the other hand, you make the perhaps unintended point that, AGW fears to the contrary notwithstanding, cold is nearly always the greater danger!

    Indeed, there are studies that say that, while increased “global warming” heat likely results in a certain number of additional deaths from heat stroke, it more than makes up for it by reducing the number of wintry deaths from exposure, which is far, far larger. And this points out, once more, the libtard tendency to examine anything in a vacuum, never looking at the “other side” (i.e., “More deaths from heatstroke!!!” BUT “Fewer deaths from exposure…”? what do you mean?).

  40. physicsguy Says:

    About that “January is the warmest ever”… a bit overblown as that assumes it was warmer than anything in the MWP, or other earlier times.

    The global temp did rise significantly in January, and this was not unexpected. We are in the middle of an El Nino, and from past data it is becoming more clear that the ENSO drives global temps. If anything this just helps to confirm that natural processes such as the ENSO have a lot more to do with global temps than human produced CO2

  41. Mr. Frank Says:

    Tim P raises an important issue — guns. When the electricity is down, there are no phones (cell or land line), and the roads are blocked with downed trees and wires (or snow), you are on your own. Gun people like to say when seconds count, the police are just minutes away. In the situation I describe (BTDT) you can’t reach the police, and they can’t get to you.

  42. Obloodyhell Says:

    There are always some people expressing concern over the apparent “sensitivity” of our civilization’s fabric. While it’s certainly got the appearance of fragility, it’s a much more stronger weave than is often grasped. The scale of the kind of disaster which it would take to truly knock us back a long ways is far more substantial than one realizes.

    While one sees the apparent fragility of a power outage, one fails to see the layers of disaster preparedness and the redundant protective systems which are there to kick into affect if there is a serious threat to life and limb. Most of those systems only kick in when a disaster actually does occur

    Katrina really is a fine example despite all the caterwauling that came out of it. An entire, major city knocked out, yet within FIVE DAYS there was adequate food and water made available for hundreds of thousands, and MOST of that delay was because the idiot Governor failed to ask for help sooner, allowing those able to help to actually act.

    Further, as we have gotten richer, many have taken steps to reduce what apparent fragility we have — many people in the south, as a result of the hurricanes knocking out power, have spent the money for a generator which provides some measure of electricity in the event of a prolonged power failure. This has two factors — first, it provides a supply of distributed backup power to any given area for which there can be a social network to help with, and second, it drives the price of such generators down by competitive forces overall.

    Now I’ll lay odds that, thanks to this winter’s conditions, by next winter, the sales of such generators in the north is going to go up substantially.

    People will probably also stock in more stuff that “keeps”, and provide themselves with more power-off amenities which they didn’t think to have up till now. Kerosene lanterns, Sterno cans, and MREs will be more commonly kept on hand, and (in the south) Ceramic Water Filters are more common, too (and should be up north, mind you, but likely less so than should be, because with all that snow out there, people tend not to think about the need for potable water if an outage happens in the summer)

  43. Tom Says:

    Our heightened vulnerabilities result from the progressive erosion of individual responsibility into community collectivism over the past sixty years or so. Self-sufficiency is no longer an ideal, replaced by the ‘virtues’ of interconnectedness, interlocked dependency and urbanization.

    I have a whole-house natural gas generator; a very full pantry; several months’ worth of essential medicines; weapons, which my family knows how to use; and the two large trees near my home are no longer, lest they crater my roof; two 4-wheel drive vehicles.

    These hedges have limits, of course. See today’s earthquake in Chile.

  44. Sergey Says:

    From the photo I seen, New England has so many trees that it can easily sacrifice some of them (in immediate vicinity of the grid) for reliable electricity.

  45. Obloodyhell Says:

    > it becomes very apparent why such energy sources are no more than 1% of the US total.

    PG, you may find a guest piece I wrote for NoOilForPacifists about 10 months back about Solar of interest:

    Solar Power: Flat Out Wrong For All Times

    I detail in rough calculations why solar is a flat out stupid pipe dream from those who fail to grasp basic physics, and show how the areal requirement to replace the US power grid with solar would require covering a land surface area with solar cells (or mirrors, for solar thermal) of not less than 4/5ths the land surface area of the State of Delaware. What’s that? “Only 20% solar”? So one-fifth of an entire state is A-ok with you…? LOL. Heads would explode. The brownouts might be worth the entertainment: “Pop”. “Pop”. “Pop”.

  46. Obloodyhell Says:

    > It is scandalous that the first country in the world to introduce Nikolay Tesla 3-phase system of alternating current cannot keep its power grid in workable condition in any weather.

    Sergay, as always, it’s a trade off between costs and likely re-occurrence of the problem.

    We have such issues very rarely, and, as noted, it’s mainly due to above-ground lines being easier to maintain, contrasted with the rareness of such severe weather that has the capacity to knock out the existing system.

    I mean, stop and think — Neo’s affected but people mere blocks away are not. So there is a “chance” of an inconvenience, but hardly a real, truly life-threatening outage. At worse, as she says, she can go stay with friends whose power hasn’t been knocked out.

    And, in reality, if she had no such friends, she’d just go to a Wal-mart or Lowes hardware, buy a kerosene heater and possibly a kerosene camping stove, and confine her activities to a smaller space.

    And if she really cared *that* much, she could almost certainly go out and buy a generator to prevent it from being an issue ever again, for a cost of around $500 to $3000, depending on how much she was willing to be “shut down”. $500, for example, would keep her in TV and Internet/computer services a fair percentage of the time.

  47. Sergey Says:

    These assertions about “warmest February on record”, if formally true, are irrelevant to people’s experience and show that the whole concept of global averaged temperature is also irrelevant to everyday life. Most contibution to this average comes from equatorial Pacific, where few people live, and the most populated regions are more dependent on ocean-land heat distribution than on any averages. This season has the extreme low of Arctic oscilation, a condition when practicaly all mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere have negative temperature anomaly, while the only regions with positive anomaly are Arctic ocean, tropical belt and Australia.

  48. Skookumchuk Says:

    The often forgotten aspect of this is mobility. You need to have as many of your supplies, power sources, etc. be small enough and accessible enough to quickly take with you in a vehicle capable of carrying it all. Because where you are going may have been cleaned of supplies by the time you arrive.

  49. Dennis Says:

    Just a small question, “What happens to you if you have an electric car and the power is out for some time.”

  50. Darrell Says:

    Dennis, I would say that is the modern version of “up the creek without a paddle” :)

  51. rickl Says:

    There have been some great comments on this thread. I think in the last few years the concept of preparedness is becoming more and more mainstream, and that’s a good thing. Some still scoff at “preppers” as looking forward to Armageddon, but natural events like snowstorms and hurricanes show that a little self-reliance can get you through it without much trouble.

    A lot of it is simple common sense. At the most basic level, having a pantry full of canned food means you won’t go hungry. If worse comes to worst you can open the cans and eat the food without heating it. It may not be very palatable, but at least you can live for a few days like that without starving. Having some bottled water on hand is also a good idea.

    I’ve never been through an earthquake, but I understand that the California government tells people that in the event of a major earthquake, they should be prepared to be entirely on their own for 3-5 days. I also remember reading that when the city of New Orleans opened the Superdome as a shelter during Hurricane Katrina, the authorities told people that they had to bring their own food and water. Many people showed up with nothing more than a bottle of soda and a bag of chips.

  52. anna Says:

    I am probably kind of late to the party here but I wanted to post my own experiences of being tied to the modern life. I grew up in a shack in northern Maine on my dad’s earnings as a freelance woodcutter, which is more dire financial circumstances than many people (not just americans) will ever experience, and yet we still had all we needed and then some. Living that life gave me a lot of strengths (which is part of the reason that I don’t see poverty as necessarily something that needs to be eliminated) and at the time I did not think we had it that bad, but as I got out in the world and compared my childhood to others’, I find that I don’t have that much in common with regular suburbanites/urbanites. I have done my fair share of dumpster diving and cold showers.

    I grew up to be a civil engineer, and working in the infrastructure business has convinced me that we are never more than 1-2 catastrophic failures away from the stone age and all its numerous problems. But all is not hopeless. Humans are resilient and can get used to any circumstances, including a reemergence of the stone age. Heck, people pay big money to go on camping trips which is really nothing more than a self-induced stone age. It is difficult of course but so are a lot of things. It is worth noting that the people who run the infrastructure such as the power grid and water lines are by and large mature adults and work to restore operation as quickly as possible.

    I was reading some articles written by a guy who lived through the collapse of Argentina (the events of which oddly mirror current events in the usa) and the post-collapse life he described was somewhat like my own childhood although with much more violence. IE, living on generator power for a few hours a day and whatnot.

    The somewhat rambling point is, that if we ever return to the stone age, we would survive it fine. And knowing what the non-stone age life is like, we will work all the harder to get it back. So it is not worth it to be fearful.

  53. rickl Says:


    Would you consider running for President? Because I would feel much better being governed by someone of your knowledge and experience than by a Harvard-trained lawyer or a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government.

    I’m completely serious.

  54. neo-neocon Says:

    Sergey: the power is never knocked out here by a snowstorm. It usually is one of two things: very heavy ice or very very high winds.

  55. Jamie Irons Says:

    Even here in the relatively warm Bay Area, we’ve had this lesson of dependency brought home to us twice this winter, once right after Thanksgiving.

    You wrote:

    “And I will marvel once again, as I did last time the power went out for days, at how dark the night is…”

    This dark night sky is actually a bit of a mystery.

    From Wikipedia (“Olber’s Paradox entry):

    If the universe is assumed to contain an infinite number of uniformly distributed luminous stars, then:

    The collective brightness received from a set of stars at a given distance is independent of that distance;

    Every line of sight should terminate eventually on the surface of a star;

    Every point in the sky should be as bright as the surface of a star.

    Looking at trees within a big flat wood in the direction of the horizon shows the effect: The mass of dark trees will hide the horizon (imagine the trees now as lights).

    Since the speed of light is finite, the further away one looks, the older the image viewed by the observer. For stars to appear uniformly distributed in space, the light from the stars must have been emitted from places where the stellar density of the region at the time of emission was the same as the current local stellar density. A simple interpretation of Olbers’ paradox assumes that there were no dramatic changes in the homogeneous distribution of stars in that time. This implies that if the universe is infinitely old and infinitely large, the flux received by stars would be infinite.

    And we would all be, rather literally, white hot!

    Fortunately modern astrophysical theory saves us from this problem!


    Jamie Irons

  56. Jamie Irons Says:

    Sorry, a double typo: should be “Olbers’ Paradox” entry…

    Jamie Irons

  57. Sergey Says:

    Neither ice accumulation on cables nor storm wind would cause cables to snap, if they are thick enough. And this is not too costly, compared to main costs: transformers, generators and other heavy machinery. It is all matter of choice and priorities. If utility companies are not penalized for outages, they will reduce costs by using less relible, but cheaper solutions. When there was an exceptionally severe harricane in Nevada, all high-voltage lines were destroyed, except one, which was designed by a Russian immigrant who used Russian normatives of structural stability. Guess what? He was fired for excessive capital costs involved, since such winds occure here only once in 50 years.

  58. neo-neocon Says:

    sergey: no, neither causes the cables to snap. It’s the trees! Huge trees falling on the power lines, in both cases (ice and wind). You can walk around my neighborhood and see huge, hundred-plus-year-old trees, fallen. Some of them have fallen on power lines, and those streets are blocked off until the trees are removed and the lines repaired.

    And yes, we do love our big old trees.

  59. Obloodyhell Says:

    Ah, but Tom, what books do you have to use to reconstruct civilization with?


    > At the most basic level, having a pantry full of canned food means you won’t go hungry.

    Well, as long as you remembered a manual can opener!!

    Don’t laugh, people forget things like that and have to futz with using screwdrivers and the like for the job.

    > The somewhat rambling point is, that if we ever return to the stone age, we would survive it fine. And knowing what the non-stone age life is like, we will work all the harder to get it back. So it is not worth it to be fearful.

    Anna, it pays to be fearful. A true collapse would mean that the land is well above its non-technical carrying capacity. At that point, the pleasantries of civilization will be stripped from our bones one way or another — either we will do it ourselves or someone who has will do the stripping for us.

    SF has dealt with this theme a number of times. Offhand, I can recommend three books on the idea (well, one novel and two series):
    Lucifer’s Hammer (novel), Niven/Pournelle
    Island In The Sea Of Time (series), SM Stirling
    Dies The Fire (series), SM Stirling

    The two series are related, in one, the island of Nantucket is transported back in time to 1000BC, and is the story of their efforts to survive and prosper. The other is what happened back in the world where Nantucket “disappeared”, as “the Change” renders all modern tech — steam engines, explosives, etc., non-functional via subtle changes in the laws of physics.

    > He was fired for excessive capital costs involved, since such winds occure here only once in 50 years.

    Precisely. So why overengineer them? As long as the mechanisms are in place to perform requisite repairs with reasonable timeliness, the overhead and inconvenience are minimal.

    That, of course, provides the answer to “why not ‘x’” as being what it almost always is:
    “How much does it cost?”
    and the equally important
    “Who pays?”

  60. Martyn of England Says:

    The USA generally had a ‘sceptical’ approach to the claims made by scientific institutions in other countries regarding greenhouse gases.

    So in 2007, the United States Environmental Protection Agency conducted its own independent investigation. It’s findings were published on 7th December 2009:

    “After a thorough examination of the scientific evidence and careful consideration of public comments, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today that greenhouse gases (GHGs) threaten the public health and welfare of the American people.”

  61. Martyn of England Says:

    USEPA 7 Dec 2009

  62. Gringo Says:

    Martyn of England: The data-fudging of the East Anglia people on your side of the pond trumps anything that an EPA bureaucrat would state, especially since much of what EPA claims is based on that fudged data.

    I was one of the eco-freaks before there was an EPA. I was involved in the first Earth Day. So, I take the long view. The air in LA is much cleaner than it was 40-50 years ago, in spite of much more auto traffic today. IMHO, the EPA has over-stepped its bounds in recent years.

    I will not convince you, and you will certainly not convince me. I have a bit more background in math and science than the Goreacle.

  63. Gringo Says:

    This Boston Globe photo of fallen trees indicates the power of the storm, for those who haven’t seen such photos yet.

  64. Martyn of England Says:


    If you had background in science then you’d know the ‘smog’ of 40-50 years ago to which you refer, which was largely particulate matter, is quite different to the greenhouse gases affecting the atmospheric chemistry.

    Neither do I need to convince you of anything. The USEPA reached it’s conclusions and published it’s findings after a period of consultation and consideration of the counter-arguments.

  65. Gringo Says:

    If you had background in science then you’d know the ’smog’ of 40-50 years ago to which you refer, which was largely particulate matter, is quite different to the greenhouse gases affecting the atmospheric chemistry.
    I cited LA smog to point out there have been improvements. Apparently you have reading comprehension problems. Read the paragraph.

  66. Martyn of England Says:


    You’re confused. Smog is different to greenhouse gases. My post at 1.33pm was about greenhouse gases and not smog.

  67. Gringo Says:

    You’re confused. Smog is different to greenhouse gases. My post at 1.33pm was about greenhouse gases and not smog.

    I repeat. You really do have reading comprehension issues. My comment about LA smog had nothing whatsoever to do with greenhouse gases nor AGW per se , but rather about the broader issue of concern about the environment. It is a rule of thumb that the first paragraph of a sentence is the topic sentence for a paragraph.

    I was one of the eco-freaks before there was an EPA.

    Here is a restating of that sentence: “I have long been concerned about the environment, and showed that by being an environmental activist well before the EPA was created.” The remark about LA smog was made in the context of the environmental concern at the time: health issues, and to point out that progress had been made. I never heard any connection made at the time between smog and AGW. Nor am I making one now. I never claimed that smog and greenhouse gases could be equated, nor that smog could be related to AGW. They are both subsets of environmental issues.

    If you had background in science then you’d know the ’smog’ of 40-50 years ago to which you refer, which was largely particulate matter, is quite different to the greenhouse gases affecting the atmospheric chemistry.

    I referred to smog in LA, and contrary to what you claim,smog in LA was NOT largely particulate matter.

    Haagen-Smit, a Dutch flavor chemist who had once developed perfumes, knew that Los Angeles smog was unlike air pollution in eastern U.S. cities, where it was chiefly composed of sulfur dioxides from burning coal[particulates] and heavy oil…After analyzing the contents and using them to create artificial “Haagen-smog” in the laboratory, Haagen-Smit announced in 1952 that ozone, the primary ingredient in smog, was not directly emitted from tailpipes or smokestacks, but was created in the atmosphere. Driven by sunlight, a photochemical reaction combined hydrocarbons from oil refineries and the partially unburned exhaust of automobiles with nitrogen oxides, a combustion byproduct, to form ozone.

    Regarding your claim that I am equating smog and greenhouse gases/AGW, see the above.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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