The Upright Spike in Technology Dependence–Changing “Grid-Down” from an Inconvenience to TEOTWAWKI

If someone were to construct a chart showing human dependence on technology, it would portray an essentially a flat line from Biblical Times to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. From there, there the line would curve upward slightly until the 1890s, when the line would tilt up to perhaps a 10 degree slope. The curve would further steepen in the 1950s (with the advent of computers). The line would then turn into an almost upright spike, starting in the 1990s.

In this new era, with each passing year, our dependence of electronic technologies grows greater and greater. Some technologies, such as microcircuit (“chip”) design and fabrication require not only electricity, but dozens of foundational technologies to keep them operational. In effect, it now takes countless thousands of existing microcircuits to make other microcircuits. That leads me to wonder: If there were a full scale nuclear exchange with large EMP effective radius “footprints” in populated regions, how would the chip industry ever recover? Even if the chip fabrication facilities (“fabs”) avoided physical destruction from nuclear blasts, how would they get all of their computer-controlled machinery back on line? Well, let’s just hope that Boise, Idaho is not a nuclear target. That way, presumably Micron Technology can re-seed the world with chips. (That is, if they will still have a fab facility in Boise. Most chip makers are in the process of outsourcing their fabs. Many of them are being offshored to China.)

Beyond these “worst-case scenario” imaginings, let’s consider something much more likely: extended power failures in North America, caused by severe weather, an oil embargo, or civil disruption. Given our current level of technological dependence, what would life be like in a “Grid Down” America? If the power grid goes down for a period of more than a week, all bets are off. Consider the following:

If “grid down” most towns and cities will be without municipal (utility) drinking water.
If “grid down” for more than a month there will likely be huge outflows of refugees from cities.
If “grid down” there will possibly be mass prison escapes.
If “grid down”, virtually all communications will go down. Telephone company central offices (COs) do have battery back-up. These are huge banks of 2-volt deep cycle floating batteries. But those batteries will only last about a week. Backup generators were not installed at most COs, because no situation that would take the power grid down for more than 72 hours was ever anticipated. (Bad planning, Ma Bell!) Thus, if and when the grid goes down then hard-wire phones, cell phones, and the Internet will all go down. When both the power grid and phone systems goes down, law and order will likely disintegrate. There will be no burglar alarms, no security lighting or cameras, and no reliable way to contact police or fire departments, and so forth.
If “grid down” for an extended period anyone with a chronic health problem may die. There will be no power for kidney dialysis machines or breathing machines for respiratory patients, no re-supply of oxygen bottles for people with chronic lung conditions, no re-supply of insulin for diabetics, et cetera.
If “grid down”, most heaters with fans won’t work, even if you can bypass the thermostat. And pellet stoves won’t work at all!
If “grid down”, then “seasonal affected disorder” will seem mild compared to the depressing effects of spending 13+ hours a day in the dark during winter months—especially at latitudes north of the 45th Parallel.
If “grid down”, there will be no 911 to call—no back-up—no “cavalry coming over the hill” in the nick of time. You, your family, and your contiguous neighbors will have to independently handle any lawlessness that comes your way.
If “grid down,” sanitation will be problematic in any large town or city. Virtually everyone will be forced to draw water from open sources, and meanwhile their neighbors will be inadvertently fouling those same sources. I heard one survivalist lecturer state that a grid down situation would “almost immediately reduce sanitation in the U.S. to Third World standards.” I think that he underestimated the impact of an extended power grid failure. At least in the Third World they are accustomed to living with poor water and sanitation. Here in the U.S., we don’t even have Third World facilities or folkways. With the grid down and city water disrupted, toilets won’t flush and most urbanites and suburbanites will not dig outhouse or garbage pits! Furthermore, the long-standing Third World village norm of “Draw your drinking water upstream and wash your clothes downstream” will be ignored. A “grid down” condition could be a public health nightmare within a week in metropolitan regions.

Lastly, consider one implication that most people have never heard of: even residential piped (utility) natural gas service is dependent on the power grid. To push gas through the many miles of pipeline, gas companies depend on electrically-powered compressor stations to pressurize the distribution pipelines. It is important to distinguish between local (natural) compression versus long distance grid-powered compression. People living right near gas fields will benefit from the natural wellhead compression and thus will probably have continuing gas service in a long term grid-down situation, whereas those living farther away will not.

In the 1950s, a power failure was essentially an inconvenience for most businesses. They used manual adding machines, typewriters, and cash registers. They did their accounting in big bound paper books. But now, the majority of manufacturers, distributors, and retailers cannot function at all without grid power. I predict that they will send their employees home. If the grid stays down for more than 10 days, there will be either “unpaid holidays” declared, or good old-fashioned layoffs.

Commerce will grind almost to a halt, because cash registers won’t work, and computerized “Just in Time” (JIT) inventory control systems will be offline. Some enterprising small businesses will keep their doors open, but they will be in the minority. Most of the major retailers will not be able to cope. Have you noticed that most of the big retail stores built since the 1980s are essentially windowless? Their corporate management succumbed to the promised “efficiency” and “economy” of the concrete slab tilt-up architecture that has become ubiquitous in the United States. Without power, these big windowless boxes won’t even have enough light for anyone to see the shelves! Surely, most of them will have to lock their doors.

The bottom line? Be prepared. Avoid urban areas and the suburbs. That is where most of the trouble will be. To avoid the social upheaval, ideally, you should live year-round at a well-stocked retreat farm or ranch with plentiful water that is in a sparsely-populated region that is well-removed from major metropolitan areas. If the grid goes down for more than a week, expect riots and looting. If it is more than a month, you can expect total anarchy. Be prepared to live self-sufficiently. Get your food and fuel storage squared away. Fence a large garden plot and practice gardening and canning each summer.

Be prepared to defend your retreat. To be practical, this will necessitate doubling-up or tripling up with neighbor to provide round-the-clock security. (Much as I described in my novel “Patriots: Surviving the Coming Collapse.”

Keep some extra items on hand for barter and charity. If the grid goes down, you may be surprised how quickly your barter goods come into play.