Lights Out, Ted Koppel. New York: Broadway Books, 2016.
Summary: Explores the vulnerabilities of our power grid to attack, the state of our preparedness for such an attack, and what it would take as individuals to survive such an attack.
Imagine what you would do if the lights went out. Your electric appliances would not work. You could not charge laptops and smartphones. Suppose it was widespread enough to take out the pumps and equipment that pump drinking water and handle sewage. The pumps at gas stations won’t work so you are immobilized. If it is winter, you may have no heat. Suppose this lasts not for a few hours or even a few days. Suppose it lasts for weeks or months. Suppose the lights are out for half or all of the country. What would happen to public order? Would you survive?
Sounds like something out of apocalyptic fiction, right? Ted Koppel, celebrated host of Nightline for many years and veteran journalist went through this mental exercise and that sought reassurances that it couldn’t happen and discovered instead our disturbing vulnerability to just such an event. Through interviews with experts in the power industry, military, cyber-security, Homeland Security, and others, he discovered that such an event is not only possible, but that indeed there is a high probability that such an attack upon our power grid could be mounted.
The first part of the book explores the vulnerability of our power grid, particularly to cyber-attack. The danger is how inter-connected our grid is. You may remember how a wire hitting a tree limb near Akron took out much of the northeastern United States. Our own power company barely got us off that grid in time. Attacks on critical parts of the grid can cascade. It could be terrorists with AK-47s attacking key transformers. It could be a high altitude nuclear detonation emitting an electro-magnetic pulse. But more likely it could be a cyber attack. One of the problems is that our power grid interconnects thousands of electric companies who buy power from each other. Some, usually the bigger ones, have better cyber-security than others. None are hack proof. Probably all have at least been probed, and in some cases, already compromised. And most share control software from an era before cyber-warfare was a significant threat. And if hardware like transformers are destroyed, replacements are not always immediately available.
OK, so it is possible or even probable, but aren’t we prepared for that? Sure, agencies like FEMA do disaster planning, but Koppel found that the people he interviewed offered little reassurance that there are good plans for responding to this kind of disaster. Yet eventually, responses would be mounted, but many major cities would have to survive by themselves for the first weeks or months of a prolonged outage.
So that brings us to the third part of Koppel’s book, what would it take to survive such an event? This was probably the most sobering part of the book because it raised the question of how far one is prepared to go to survive. Yes, you can plan to be off the grid, have food and water supplies, but to what extent are you willing to defend yourself from those who are not so well prepared but may be willing to kill to get what you have. Consider the amount of guns in American society. Koppel interviews “preppers,” those who already live in wilderness areas relatively off the grid, and interestingly, Mormons, who have prepared in each of their “wards” to support one another in disaster. Most fascinating in discussions with this group, which has renounced violence and trusts to law enforcement, is that their guidelines for survival in disaster include the recommendation that one “might consider obtaining a gun” without specifying how it would be used–an approach Koppel describes as “constructive ambiguity.”
At the end of the day, Koppel thinks at very least that we need to think about how we would survive at least for two weeks and to have some kind of plan in place with provisions for non-perishable food, water (most critical), and other basic necessities, allowing time for coordinated disaster responses to begin. Drawing on the Mormons, he also points to the issue of social capital–do we belong to real networks of people who will help each other when the chips are down–religious organizations, community organizations, or even close knit neighborhoods?
What struck me in reading is that there are two kinds of preparedness that Koppel is addressing. One is defensive preparedness, ranging from cyber-security to disaster planning to stockpiling critical supplies. As important as that is, the more important preparation may be that of the social fabric of our country, which seems in tatters. Koppel speaks of wartime England and the mutual support people gave each other. It is sobering to ask whether that national character exists in our own highly divisive, factionalized nation and with our increasing isolation in an internet-mediated virtual reality. How long would order and mutual support last? Long enough?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Blogging for Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.