The news that day was filled with stories about Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). Say what? A CME is also known as a "solar flare", and I know that's not really being more descriptive, but basically, the sun that provides the gravitational framework that keeps our
It happens all of the time with varying degress of effect, and if we didn't have any electronics, there would be nothing to worry about, but our dependence on electricity and the likelihood that a very large CME could do damage to our individual electrical gadgets (at best) or to the grid as a whole (at worst) is pretty high.
In fact, in 1859 a pretty big solar flare hit the Earth, disrupting telegraph service and creating such a magnificent Aurorae that in some places it was as bright as day time. The experience has been dubbed The Carrington Event, after the scientist who first identified the phenomenon.
The significance of that event to our time lies in the fact that we are much more heavily dependent on electricity, and such an event could wreak havoc, if it takes out the grid. In the days prior to the March 2012 CME event, there was some babble in certain online circles about "what could" happen. The gist of the conversations was that there are x-number of substations across the US, each of which have a transformer. Without the transformer, electricity can not be distributed. For every x-number of transformers, there's one replacement, and it takes x-amount of time to manufacture a new one.
So, basically, if a very large CME destroyed *every* transformer, there would be places in our country that would be without electricity for several years awaiting the necessary equipment to fix their part of the grid. The question is, who would be first in line, and further, what would those at the bottom of the list do in response to not being first?
Most people probably didn't even know it was happening - that it happened. There were no worries and no preparations. Ignorance was running blissfully through the masses, and since nothing happened, no harm done.
Even if something had happened, though, what could we have done to prepare? I think saving the electronics would probably have been an exercise in futility. Best case, I could have enclosed our computers in a Faraday cage (there's a really cool one at the Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts, and a favorite stop for Deus Ex Machina, who is an electrical engineer and has a love of all things sparkly - except Vampires). The problem is that I don't have a faraday cage at my disposal, although I could get one, I suppose. It's just that if all electronics are wiped out (from the grid to unprotected bike generators), what good would having my computer do me after the six-hours of battery life is exhausted?
What worries me, though, is not that there was so little news about the event, which means there was very little or no preparations on an individual level, but that there was a flurry of worried anticipation and half-hearted attemts at getting ready followed by a sigh of relief that nothing happened and a return to life as usual.
And I guess that's what bothers me about our collective mindset in general. It's like bees.
In a bee colony the entire focus is on saving the Queen. Without the Queen, life in the colony ceases to exist. A regular bee's lifespan is pretty short, and in order for the colony to thrive, there needs to be a Queen that is laying fertile eggs. The difference between a fertile egg and a non-fertile egg is gender, with the latter producing the male drones.
Drone bees are pretty cool. They don't have stingers, and while some drones are necessary for the health of the hive, too many will kill the colony.
The fertilized eggs are female. They are responsible for doing the work of the hive that keeps everyone else alive. Specifically, they venture out, collect the pollen, and turn it into the honey on which they all survive.
Honey, for the bees, is survival, and so, in response to a threat to their hive, they will start to eat the honey. One of the common practices among beekeepers who wish to work with the hive is to use smoke. It is often taught that the smoke calms the bees so that they don't sting. It's actually an opposite effect with the same results. The smoke sends the bees into a frenzy. Believing that there is a fire and that the hive is in danger of being destroyed, they begin to eat the honey, and they don't attack the invader (beekeeper), because they're too busy trying to save the hive.
We, humans, tend to be a lot more like bees than most of us would believe ourselves to be. In response to a looming disaster, we rush to make preparations, but mostly, during our day-to-day lives, we just go about our business ... the business of making money ... er, honey.
In a conversation on the night of the CME in March, when I was asked about it, I said that it could knock out the entire grid ... or it could do nothing. Either way, on the day of the event, there's really nothing left for us to do, but wait and see. For the average Joe, the event was a non-event. Where I live, we didn't even get to enjoy the Northern Lights because of the cloud cover.
My concern is that we've become too complacent. It's like we're living in the Boy Who Cried Wolf story, and every time something like this is about to occur, someone cries Wolf!, and everyone scrambles to "get ready", and then, nothing happens, and next time there's a cry of Wolf! fewer people will be slower to react.
Maybe nothing will ever happen, but maybe something is happening somewhere all of the time.
I don't go to the grocery store when a big storm is predicted. Aside from the fact that I don't like the frantic energy from the crowd of shoppers who feel the need to prepare for "this" storm, but little need to prepare, in general, there's very little that I need to get. Deus Ex Machina and I are usually stocked up on the essentials, because I hate running out of stuff (a fact which amuses Deus Ex Machina every week at the grocery store when I put, yet another, carton of oats in the cart ;). So, we usually have, at least, a few weeks of back-up, and for those things that we don't have, we have some sort of substitute.
In short, we're usually prepared to weather any storm without fear.
My concern with this most recent emergency is that, instead of just changing how they live so that things like this won't be an emergency, most people are still living as if there will never be an emergency, and then, when there is news that there might be an emergency, they rush to eat all of the honey.
And what we've created is a reactionary way of life. In short, most of us think we're planning for the future, because we have a 401K or an IRA. We have money in the bank for when we retire. And in the meantime, we're working a 9 to 5 job (with which very few of us are truly satisfied) to pay the bills, and when there's an emergency, it completely disrupts our lives.
Instead of really living and enjoying life, we're always waiting for that "right time" to do one thing or another. Like Scarlet O'Hara, we live in a fog believing that there will always be tomorrow to worry about that, and so when tomorrow comes, and we've lost our job or the stock market tanks and we lose half our life-savings or the price of gasoline creeps up to $4/gallon while we aren't paying attention and we can't afford to fill up our 10 mpg F100 truck (and pay our mortgage) or a crop loss in some town out West most of us has never heard of causes the price of flour to triple, it is an emergency, and we are, invariably ill-prepared to handle it.
What's so disappointing is that, if we were paying even just the slightest bit of attention to that obscure article on page three by the junior journalist who will probably lose his job if too many people actually read (and believe) the truth he's revealed, none of these emergency events would be emergencies, because we would have known they were coming for months.
I got the coolest note from my mother the other day. She likes buying books for me, and I like getting them. Sometimes, though, she buys me a book I already have - as happened recently. So, I offered to send the book back to her so that she could have a copy, but she said she already had a copy, too. In fact, she told me that she'd opened up her copy not too many days previously and got lost in its pages for a few hours.
The book? Back to Basics.
It's one of the best 'how-to' self-sufficiency books we own, and it covers just about every skill a homesteader might need from food (raising and perservation) to reusing rags to make a rug. There's even a chapter on making a mountain dulcimer. The instructions are simple and easy to follow.
Peak oil. Climate change. Resource scarcity. And now, catastrophic sun activity. There's a lot to worry about, for sure, and we won't be able to prepare for every eventuality. In fact, we may find that when at our most prepared, we are ill-prepared. But knowing that we can find what we need, that we can provide for ourselves even in these worstcase scenarios really does make it easier to laugh about a CME, and it takes the fear out of contemplating losing ....
Deus Ex Machina and I have two copies of Back to Basics. We're planning to keep one, and we've decided that we'd like to offer the other here.
If you're interested in receiving our well-loved copy of Back to Basics, please leave a comment detailing a lost skill you have been working to learn ... and also, why you think it's important for you to know.
Deus Ex Machina and I are working on foraging food ... but not just for today's dinner, but also for adding to our winter stores. This past weekend, in fact, we went out and gathered stinging nettles, dandelion greens and flowers, and Japanese Knotweed. The first two were dehydrated for use in future soups. The flower heads were cleaned and are in the fridge. They'll become fritters. The Japanese knotweed was blanched and is in the freezer. We feel learning to identify and use wild foods is important, because we have such a small lot and while we can grow a lot, we'll also need to supplement our diet. We feel wild foods are our best option.