NBC has a hit on its fall schedule: "Revolution" which transports viewers to a world struggling to survive fifteen years after all technology dependent on electricity has been rendered inoperable by a mysterious countermeasure unleashed by environmentalist zealots. A decade ago such a premise would have been impossible for series television, the closest comparable having been ABC’s controversial 1983 movie depiction of a nuclear attack “The Day After,” which explored the effects of a nuclear war, focusing on an electromagnetic pulse at Lawrence, Kansas. The latter attracted 100 million viewers, but a series based on such a dreary premise would have been out of the question.
That Americans might want to learn about the possible long-term economic and social impacts of a failure of technology raises questions about us, and about the motivation behind the network’s decision to place it on the schedule. It was recently revealed that the major networks are all paid by the administration to work certain themes into their fictional entertainment, in the case of the recent revelation that theme was favorable mention of Obamacare. When the administration’s Centers for Disease Control has recently (2011) published an only slightly tongue-in-cheek manual for surviving a zombie apocalypse, one can be forgiven for questioning whether “Revolution” is not something of a psychological operation all by itself.
One eventuality for which the United States is not prepared is a solar flare. While solar flares happen all the time, a particularly large one known as an “X-Class” flare will prove quite disastrous when it next strikes the Earth. While you’re in no danger of being singed and most airplanes would not fall out of the sky as was depicted in “Revolution,” the charged particles that sleet all the way down through the atmosphere are another story. The last X-Class flare known to have hit the Earth was the Carrington Event in 1859. It fried the telegraph systems then in place. A more recent, smaller flare knocked out the electrical grid in Quebec in 1989.
America’s grid is not ready for another Carrington Event. In addition to frying everything from garage door openers to iPads, such a flare would destroy large transformers that are not backed up by redundant systems and which can take up to a year to replace. The estimated cost to provide surge protectors for the transformers is south of $2 billion, however the work has yet to be funded even though such an effort would also protect against the EMP effect of a nuclear bomb detonated over the U.S. Iran in particular has been said to have threatened to do that.
Even with hardened transformers nationwide, most cars would stop working immediately, and the odd 1967 Ford Falcon still equipped with an electromechanical distributor would soon run out of the gas that would no longer be delivered by the electric pumps down at the Chevron (everything needs to be surge-protected, it’s just that the large transformers are the most critical). We could probably expect a prolonged period of problems with empty shelves at Publix, water and sewer not working as they should, and work and school being unable to open. While many satellites are hardened and can even be protected from flares by shutting them down when one is seen to be coming, it’s possible that a significant fraction of satellites could be lost, including enough of the ones that provide GPS services that the system would become inoperative.
And while all that could be inconvenient (and perhaps even deadly), something much worse could be happening on the international front. A recent study of international trade concluded that with as little as 10 days’ disruption for whatever reason, global trade could be very difficult to restart. And we don’t need a nuclear bomb or an X-Flare to make that happen, another study showing that 40% of global trade is dependent on just 147 highly-interlocked megacorporations means that the Eurozone’s teetering finances could pull that off all by themselves. That really is something to worry about.