For want of a nail, a ship was lost. As this tale suggests, concerns about technological interdependence preceded the digital age. Amidst war, the loss of a few sailing ships could end the political rule and cultural hegemony of whole civilizations. Nonetheless, massive, unplanned, and often unwanted transformations in daily life have never been reserved solely for technological breakdowns. Plagues and famines from the mid-fourteenth through the sixteenth century played a major role in the transformation of late medieval society. Nature can exact its own surprises.
The mid-August blackout throughout the Northeast reminds us that even daily life in peacetime today is implicated in dense technological webs and is vulnerable to small shocks and seemingly trivial failures. Our technological infrastructure surely needs a radical reconstruction to reduce our dependence on far-flung, finite, and polluting sources of energy and increase our capacity for self-reliance. Yet we best beware of dreams of a free lunch. Even "natural" technologies may entail risks and limits. Our best hope may lie in periodically reminding ourselves of these limits.
Though the mainstream media greeted the blackout with shock and awe, the respected energy analyst Amory Lovins had commented just a few days before the blackout: "I am surprised the lights are still on." Nor were these concerns limited to radical critics like Lovins. In 2001, the head of the North American Electric Reliability Council commented, "The question is not whether, but when, the next major failure of the grid will occur."
The collapse of the grid might be seen as one more instance of a broader problem in American life, the failure to maintain the "infrastructure" of highways, bridges, communication, and energy systems on which all commerce depends. In the case of the electrical grid, growing deregulation and competition have created a system where the rules governing the grid have been reduced to voluntary accords and where none of the major players have any incentive to maintain the grid as a whole.
Yet even if we were to imagine a national utility given the power and the resources to maintain an adequate grid, other major problems might remain. Writing recently in the Globe and Mail, Sarah Wolfe and Thomas Homer-Dixon point out: "many of our common networks, such as electrical grids, are "scale-free." This type of network contains "hubs," which are nodes with a disproportionately high number of connections to other nodes in the network... Hubs create... economic efficiency through organized distribution of energy, commodities, or information. What Thursday's power failure illustrated so aptly was the critical vulnerability of scale-free networks - and that is how failures of their hubs and key links can cascade out of control. ... We can take steps to reduce these vulnerabilities, by loosening the couplings in our economic and technological networks, by building into these networks buffering capacity of various kinds and, perhaps most importantly, by distributing the production of key goods and services."
Energy analyst Harvey Wasserman, drawing on the work of the Lovinses, reminds us such improvements are more than just theoretical possibilities: "Photovoltaic cells on rooftops and embedded in windows can produce grid-free electricity, with battery or fuel-cell backups. Geothermal power can heat and cool with nothing but the power of the earth's crust. Methane digestion can turn waste into usable gas. Basement generators can use biomass fuels like ethanol and soy diesel for off-grid self-sufficiency."
The U.S. economy is at a point where energy transformations that would increase local and regional self-reliance and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and distant networks would also be more efficient in an economic sense. The real costs of the production and distribution of fossil fuels have never been factored into our pricing system. In addition, transmitting electricity over vast distances wastes a substantial portion of the energy. For a fraction of the government subsidies that have gone to nuclear power, a range of green alternatives would already be producing more efficient and less fragile power.
Nonetheless, nature has never been without its own unpleasant surprises and difficult tradeoffs. It would be wise to be wary of any promise that more natural energy systems can easily and automatically maximize both efficiency and complete self-reliance. Are we really sure as to the ecological, social, and economic consequences of solar panels atop every house and acres of windmills? Today's grids exit in part because local businesses and residences with enough capacity to meet their peak needs at all times will probably have mountains of excess capacity.
Perhaps the deepest lesson and question from the recent blackout should be a willingness to question or limit our faith that either nature or technology can ever be made fully to serve our purposes. We best proceed with caution, ever willing to make adjustments along life's tortuous journey.