We have a fascination with the birth, life and passing of civilizations. From archeology to anthropology, new science and methods such as radio carbon dating help mankind explore and probe the depths of our history.
All ancient civilizations have one thing in common – they’ve passed away; some for reasons known, and some unknown. Thus, as the last flickers cast by a dying star, we are often left with traces and artifacts of brilliance and splendor lost.
If ancients could return to speak to the modern world, would there be an admonition to those of us living atop the ruins of ages past? Homer may have answered this question best, “History is the oracle of truth.” Perhaps contemporary civilization should look to common threads woven through lost worlds and extract self-evident truths. In many instances, perhaps unwittingly or even unintentionally, those messages have already been presented.
Today, the world is collectively intrigued by the idea of an apocalypse. Whether speaking of the end of days, black swan events or extinction, all are themes which speak to the conclusion of civilization’s story.
Across the globe there is a renewed preoccupation with survival preparation. Popular Mechanics magazine recently published an article about the manic international market for survival space in bunkers and vaults that cost anywhere from $35,000 to $5 million. But, the upward spiral of preparation is not limited to individuals. In Norway, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located just a few hundred kilometers from the Arctic Circle, stores more than 850,000 varieties of seeds believed a requirement to sustain the world’s food supply.
Interestingly, in late 2015 the Syrian Civil War prompted the first withdraw from the vault. “We did not expect retrieval this early,” said Crop Trust, who runs the vault. But Syria’s central gene seed storage bank was damaged, prompting a withdraw of drought resistant grains. Crop Trust notes the seed vault is “the final backup.”
Our culture today is inundated by fear – some of which is well-placed. However, much has been done to exploit that fear in the interest of greed. Phil Boger, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, notes, “What we see in contemporary American mass culture really is that apocalyptic belief, [and it] has become a big business.” Today, it’s also fused in the DNA of politics. If you’re left-leaning its Global Warming; if you lean right, its nuclear annihilation. In either case, fear is used in an attempt to invoke change or modify our behavior.
However, we must be careful of the tendency to “cry wolf.” Constant over-dramatization leads to “distortion, trivialization of what is, in some sense, a very profound insight,” according to Professor Boger. Fear baiting is an insult to intelligence and a dangerous exaggeration that can desensitize us to genuine risks.
The wise Plato said, “Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.” When we use fear to expound upon the realities of modern existential challenges, we invoke pure emotion. When we exploit this fear for profit, we expose our baser nature. What we should emphasize is knowledge. Knowledge is the purest and most influential motivator. Anything else is a barrier to reason, commonsense and sustainable solutions.
That said, there are real dangers to our nation and civilization that do require our examination. Our world is changing fast. In some cases, these changes advance the cause of human progress, environmental protection, cultural development and peace. Unfortunately, in other instances, technological advances cause changes so rapid and complex that security considerations become outmoded and risk all of the previous advances we’ve made as a society.
Today, America relies upon less than one percent of its population to cultivate enough food to feed our nation and others around the world. That food source requires multiple forms of power to maintain growth and distribution. We are completely dependent upon our electric grid to help us sustain not only food distribution, but also water, sanitation, heat and most life-sustaining essentials.
This life-sustaining power system is huge, but it is also fragile. As with any behemoth, often just a nudge or fault in one area can lead to cascading failures throughout. There’s a lesson in the familiar Greek proverb of Achilles – though strong and seemingly invulnerable, all things regardless of how great have weaknesses that may confound. America’s safety can be compromised; and given recent hacking events and technological developments abroad, time could be short. Like the Titanic, the notion of an invulnerable America is an illusion best not shattered after striking an ice-cold reality.
Though fear and greed have been used to sell the Apocalypse – we, as American citizens, have an obligation to sift through disinformation and educate ourselves so that we can recognize genuine vulnerabilities that can truly impact our way of life and disrupt our national security.
Of course, vulnerabilities can be exploited by malicious human intent; but, we are also vulnerable to natural phenomenon. A major solar event could cause as much damage as a cyber-attack or electromagnetic pulse (EMP) directed at our nation’s power grid. As dramatic as it sounds, any of these scenarios have the potential to change life as we know it. Telecommunications, transportation, electricity, banking, medical services, even the ability to start your car, can be instantly disabled on a national scale. With this understanding, the White House is making power grid security a national priority, noting, “Protecting this critical system from cyber-attacks, and ensuring that it can recover quickly in the event of an attack, is vital to national security and economic well-being.”
Nuclear power can help us generate the clean energy we need to recover, but only if vulnerabilities are identified and addressed. Current capabilities can protect many of our infrastructure weaknesses, but it must be made a priority. We no longer have the luxury of ignorance because the consequence of avoidance is too great. Given the potential for destruction, awareness and focus need to be directed to our national grids. If faced with a simultaneous meltdown of our nuclear plants, our actual survival is at risk due to the impact of a long-term power blackout. Just think about how long you could go without your refrigerator, stove, water, or heat with no ability to communicate, travel anywhere, or even receive television signals to let you know what is happening. The effect would be devastating when projected across our nation.
Distinguishing the difference between real and imagined issues is critical to intelligent response. We have advanced tremendously due to the concentration of our resources, but we should understand this also creates centralized vulnerabilities to our national security and human interests. This reality is neither new nor foreign. During WWII, Japan attempted to gain rapid U.S. capitulation by striking at the Pacific Fleet at Peril Harbor. In the Return of the Jedi, the Rebels strike the Empire by finding the central vulnerability in the Death Star. Today, our vulnerability is our power grid.
As with civilizations past, ignoring the realities of our day could very well lead to our demise. We must have the courage to ask how we can ensure the safety of our communities while protecting our common and global interests. Sustainability reaches to all levels of life including the environment, the economy, the health and well-being of our citizens, and the overall future of our nation. As a member of the global community, what affects us impacts others; and many other nations do not have sufficient resources to sustain such losses. It could easily become a global event.
According to FEMA, “Smart community leaders are looking to the future to ensure the long-term safety and sustainability of their entire communities.” Smart leaders and citizens can begin strengthening society now by asking relevant questions and seeking realistic solutions.
Our greatest strength as a diverse nation is in its ability to develop innovative solutions to complex problems with multiple perspectives. In an information-rich world, it is critical to discern between information we need and information we can ignore. The risks we face today cannot be ignored. When armed with accurate data, we can develop strategies for enhancing our security and protecting future generations. Take the time to become informed citizens and neighborhood leaders, so that you may first assist your community and then guide our government in providing appropriate response measures. The national grid was created to make life exceptional for millions of people. It is that widespread effect which must be protected to ensure the viability and safety of our nation and global community.
David J. Stuckenberg, is a national security expert and Founder and Chairman of the American Leadership & Policy Foundation.