In 1850 – nine years before the Carrington Event and 12 years before the Civil War – the population of the United States was 23 million people. At the end of 2018, the population of the U.S. had reached 328 million people. What enabled the population to increase by 305 million people is quite simple: technology. New technologies that promoted this growth include: advances in medicine, advances in agricultural methods, the ability to transport food across the country (and across the world), new sources and uses of energy, an industrial revolution, advances in many areas of technology, and so on. All of these technologies are tied to one significant event: the advent of the electric grid.
In 1850, the country did not have the technology nor the resources to have supported a human population of 328 million. The plows were drawn by horse or mule. Much of the population worked hard just to survive the winter – growing and preserving food, as well as chopping wood to keep warm, were necessary preparation for survival during colder months. Even in the cities, limitations in technology (e.g., coal mining techniques, transportation, ability to store food) limited the number of people that could be supported by the agriculture and technology of the time.
Gradual Vulnerability, Sudden Realization
The electric grid is the largest machine in the history of the world, built piece by piece over many generations. It arguably started on 4 September 1882 with Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station in Manhattan, New York – which initially had had 82 customers and an electric load of 400 lamps. After “the war of the currents” between Edison’s direct current (“DC”) and George Westinghouse’s alternating current (“AC”), electric power availability began to spread to more areas.
The electric grid that exists today has been built gradually over the last century. During that time, it has advanced life in every way imaginable and literally made the impossible possible. The U.S. population between 1930 and 2018 increased by over 200 million (see Figure 1). Gradually, the self-reliance in the 1800s transitioned into complete reliance on all the technologies that the power grid made possible. New ways to heat (oil, gas, steam, electricity, etc.) meant no more chopping wood to keep warm. Farms were made exponentially more efficient, which led to fewer people needing to farm. Better transportation meant that food and goods could be transported long distances.
Gradually, people have become dependent on the ability to get food that is produced elsewhere; and most people no longer preserve food for the winter. Gradually, people have become dependent on goods such as vehicles and medications that were made possible by electricity. Water and sanitation systems are now completely dependent on electricity – gone are dug wells and outhouses. The entire financial system has moved into the Digital Age.
Today, the United States is literally on life support, plugged into the electric grid. The lives of hundreds of millions of people depend on the necessities the electric grid provides. Without it, the nation would be back to a 1850 lifestyle – except the requisite skills are now lacking and most people do not possess necessary resources such as horses or mules.
This scenario, unfortunately, is plausible. In March 2017, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs said that the majority of the population of the United States would die if the electric grid were successfully attacked – by man or nature. For more than two decades, federal reports, hearings, and congressional records have detailed the threats to the electric grid. However, there is no comprehensive plan to address this threat. A slide from a 24 May 2018 FEMA presentation states that the U.S. federal government has no plan for “very long term or extremely wide spread power outages.”
The Reality of Being “Unplugged”
There are some recent cautionary tales of what could happen when a society grows dependent on the electric grid, then suddenly lose power. Two key examples are Hurricane Maria and the Venezuelan blackouts.
During Hurricane Maria in September 2017, much of Puerto Rico lost power and did not regain it for months. Despite the massive assistance and resources provided by the rest of the United States, much of the island was also without potable water for months. The Milken Institute of Public Health estimated the “excess deaths” (i.e., attributable to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria) at 2,975. The New England Journal of Medicine estimated the “excess deaths” at 4,645. Although the exact number of deaths associated with that storm may never be determined, it is clear that the loss of power and the problems that accompany a loss of power caused thousands of deaths. (Note: The official death count remained at 64 until 28 August 2018, when the Government of Puerto Rico revised it to 2,975 based on the Milken Institute study.)
The March-April 2019 blackouts in Venezuela serve as another clear example of what happens when grid-dependent society loses power. Within a short period of time:
- People had to resort to getting water from the sewage canals;
- Food rotted without refrigeration;
- Cities experienced anarchy;
- Unruly crowds ransacked stores;
- Armed residents guarded their property from looters;
- Hospitals had no power or water; and
- Bodies decomposed in the morgue.
Most people only experience power outages that last a few hours, or a few days at most. The expectation is often that help is on the way, utility trucks are coming from other states, and somebody will come to the rescue. However, this complacency is dangerous.
There are 35,000 towns and cities in the United States. If a substantial portion of them are in the “disaster area” in a national-scale power outage, “help” may not be available. There has never been a national-scale disaster in this country. Even Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Maria were regional in scale. Massive resources were available and brought in from elsewhere in the country (i.e., from outside the “disaster area”).
However, if a substantial portion of the entire country is in the disaster area, any particular town could be on its own for a long period of time – weeks, months, or longer. Today, the nation is generations removed from adversity and self-reliance. Generations removed from having to worry about surviving the winter, the nation has become extremely vulnerable.
Throughout history, Americans have taken action to accomplish great things and invented much of the industry and technology that exists today. In a technology-dependent society, Americans now need to take the following actions to avoid catastrophe:
- Hold the federal and state governments accountable for protecting the electric grid.
- Prepare communities for catastrophic disasters by building a culture of preparedness.
If enough people take action to secure the grid and mitigate the effects of a widespread power outage, then each person will make a difference.
This article was adapted from “Q: How Did We Became So Vulnerable?”