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2.9.03

Blackouts, terrorism, and wildfires

One of the elements that made the Northeast blackout a few weeks back so catastrophic was the widespread interconnection of modern life. A transmission problem in Cleveland brought down not just that city's power, but power across the region. And without power, other services -- transportation, water, food provision, etc. -- broke down as well. Thus one of the suggestions proposed later was a greater decentralization of the power supply. This same interconnection is at the heart of many fears about terrorism. While the blackout was, of course, not due to terrorism, it's far from inconceivable that a terrorist could execute a similar attack on some element of the nation's (or world's) infrastructure, sending problems cascading through the system with just a small disruption. This interconnection thus is part of the increasing power that even an individual may be able to wield. Whereas a hunter-gatherer of a few thousand years ago would have been hard-pressed to kill even a handful of people, and could do little lasting damage to social systems, a modern-day terrorist could change the fate of the world. Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton's awful novel Vril: The Power Of The Coming Race predicted that, when everyone had infinite power, a truce of peace would result. Instead, today we fear being held hostage by a few extremists with great power.

Ecological dangers usually seem to work quite differently. No single person can trigger, for example, global warming -- it can only happen by the accumulated emissions of billions of people over decades. It's similar with overfishing, or soil erosion. But a dynamic closer to that of the blackout seems to be operating in the case of catastrophic wildfires (or possibly certain types of GM catastrophe that resemble the release of an alien organism, a sort of biotech cane toad scenario). While all of nature is interconnected, in a healthy state it is characterized by certain negative feedbacks that contain changes. But an unhealthy ecosystem, such as a forest with a buildup of fuel, creates the possibility of wide-reaching cascading change. One careless campfire could light a whole state on fire. This means that every individual is suddenly crucial. We can't ignore outliers, considering them to be extremists made impotent by their lack of numbers. The case of wildfire is potentially more catastrophic because the system that the fire cascades through is not a human one. In the case of the blackout, many areas were saved from losing power because there was intimate human involvement in the system, allowing the cascade to be cut off. Certainly the fire-susceptibility of the ecosystem is shaped by humans. But humans are not an integral part of it, able to dynamically alter it as changes occur in order to quarrantine hazards. At best we can set up a self-quarrantining system, in which, for example, a patchwork of previously de-fueled areas keep any one spark from spreading very far, reducing the destructive power of the few careless individuals.

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