In the past week, I’ve seen a number of articles on the possibility of either a massive solar flare or EMP taking down the electrical grid in this country. While neither scenario is (thank God) a certainty, both are very uncomfortable possibilities.
In reading the comments associated with these articles, it’s clear to me that most people have no clue – none whatever – how altered American life would be if we lost the grid.
Disturbingly, there are some people who actually jeer at the thought of a darkened nation. “People … stop worrying,” one person scolded. “We had none of these luxuries in the early 1900s and late 1800s and before, yet people still lived and had lives. You want to survive, learn how to live like billions of people did before 1900.”
There seems to be a quaint fallacy that, should America lose its electrical grid, we would merely regress to the 1800s. Nonsense. We’d regress a whole lot farther back than that. If we’re lucky, we’d only regress back to the Middle Ages. Not in social structure, but in terms of primitive survival.
What do I mean? Well, consider this.
There is a 1958 essay titled “I, Pencil” which tells of the amazingly complex and interconnected manufacturing process necessary to make a simple pencil. To start, a cedar tree must be felled to provide the wood for a pencil. But that’s just the beginning.
“Now contemplate all the saws and trucks and rope and the countless other gear used in harvesting and carting the cedar logs to the railroad siding. Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors; the growing of hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of all the foods. Why, untold thousands of persons had a hand in every cup of coffee the loggers drink!”
If any link in that supply chain is broken – say, the chains saws and trucks and refined gasoline and machinery could not be manufactured – how long before a simple pencil would become a rare and coveted creation, a miracle of unreachability?
In short, our modern world is astoundingly complicated and interconnected. If a simple pencil requires massive amounts of supporting infrastructure in its manufacturing, how much more complex is our modern food chain? Transportation? Water? Medical care? Communication? Sanitation?
Should this nation lose its power grid, we wouldn’t be pushed back into the 1800s. In the 1800s, there was a massive infrastructure already in place for people to survive and thrive without electricity. We had millions of trained horses and oxen pulling wagons and plows. We had factories and trains designed to run on steam or coal. Everyone had cookstoves for heating and cooking. Everyone had outhouses. Everyone had oil lamps or candles. Everyone was much, much closer (both literally and figuratively) to their food sources. And people accepted the fact that medical and dental care was rudimentary at best, and as such their lives were likely to be shorter and more uncomfortable.
But what about today? Sure, we live in homes more convenient and comfortable than our ancestors could ever envision. But take away the power that makes those conveniences and comforts possible, and suddenly all we have is a shell – a shell that was not designed to be comfortably habitable without power. Most people have no way to cook, heat, see in the dark, communicate, answer the call of nature, stay clean or get a drink of water without electricity providing the infrastructure. Take away the power that provides gasoline in abundance, and farmers can no longer plant or harvest their crops, truckers can no longer bring those crops to the cities and grocery stores would cease to function. And without refrigeration, meat and dairy items would rot almost immediately.
Additionally, most Americans are no longer equipped to handle the hard physical labor necessary to live under such primitive conditions.
For example, this week we’ve been bringing in the hay to feed our livestock over the winter. A local farmer mowed the 25-acre pasture across from us. After a few days, he swathed the hay, then baled and delivered it to our farm. We stacked about 600 bales in the barn to feed our cattle over a long Idaho winter.
But what would happen if the electrical grid went down? If the farmer could no longer buy fuel for his tractor, mower, swather, baler or hay truck? If he couldn’t obtain the twine that binds the hay into convenient bales? If the parts he needed for his frequent breakdowns were unavailable?
What would happen is my husband, children and I would be out in the hot sun swinging scythes (yes, we have four scythes in the barn) to cut that hay. It would take about two weeks of long days to “mow” the field. Then we’d have to rake the hay by hand. Then we’d have to somehow transport 15 tons of loose grass hay the quarter-mile to our barn, where we’d have to pitch the unbaled hay to the rafters.
In short, a job which takes only a few days with modern conveniences would take several weeks of brutal work without electricity. And we’re among the lucky ones. We already have a farm, scythes, sharpeners, a barn, livestock, physical fitness and a willing spirit.
It is foolish to think that with just a little tweaking here and there, America could get along fine without power. We’ve spent the last hundred years learning to live with electricity, and in the process we’ve dismantled literally the entire infrastructure (and lost the skills set) that once allowed us to thrive without it.
People often scoff at preppers for our concern about the end of the world as we know it. Remember, if the power grid goes down, the world won’t end – it will only end as we know it.
While I’m not saying it is a certainty that America’s power grid will someday come down, I’m saying it’s a possibility, along with scientists a lot smarter than me. And like any possible disaster, it behooves people to think things through – and I mean really think things through, from beginning to end – then act and prepare accordingly.
The loss of our power grid will not put us back to the pioneers – it may well put us back to the Middles Ages or earlier, but without the survival skills the peasants had back then.