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Lawrence E. Joseph

Lawrence E. Joseph

Posted: January 11, 2010 01:21 PM

The Need for Enemies

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What is it about our need for enemies? Has the American consciousness been shaped, even warped, by decades of fighting off the Nazis, the Communists, and now, Muslim extremists? I do not ask this to minimize the threat from malefactors, which is certainly real enough. 9/11 bears stark witness to that. Even the threat of runaway global warming has its villains - us, and our wastrel ways.

My concern is that we have become overly dependent on outrage, loathing of self or others, to mobilize our defenses. This need for hatred or, at the very least, righteous indignation, could well cause us to overlook the greatest single threat to our civilization, the turbulent Sun.

The Sun is not in any way evil or purposeful, and bears no will, good or ill, against our species or our planet. In fact, the fluctuations in its energy output have over the eons no doubt contributed to the evolutionary outcome we enjoy today. But because we can't get angry at it, can't fear that that yellow ball in the sky actually wants to do us harm, we lack emotional fuel to rally ourselves to take the necessary precautions.

As detailed in a previous blog, the National Academy of Sciences has declared that outsized blasts from the Sun present grave danger to our power grid, to the point where one hundred thirty million Americans could find themselves with little or no electricity - meaning little or no telecommunications, water or fuel (the pumps are electric), refrigeration, law enforcement and military security - for months or years. Such a mega-blast is not only theoretical: over the past 150 years we have been hit by two or three of them, and we will certainly be hit again, probably within our lifetimes. Thank goodness the previous blasts came between 1859 and 1921, before civilization had grown to be so utterly dependent on electricity and on the power grid that now supplies it. It's just a matter of time before the next mega-blast hits and shorts out daily life. By scientific consensus, solar blasts will next climax in frequency and ferocity late in 2012 or early 2013. What's more, our current solar cycle closely resembles the one that led to the blast of 1859, the largest one ever recorded to hit the Earth.

Protecting the grid with surge suppressors is estimated to cost several hundred million (not billion) dollars, and should take two to three years. A big job, but not unmanageable. Think of it as health insurance for our way of life. Yet none of our leaders has said "boo" on the subject, and hardly any constructive action has been taken. Imagine instead if the National Academy of Sciences had found our electrical power grid to be gravely vulnerable to our enemies, say, to an electromagnetic pulse attack from nuclear weapons detonated in the atmosphere above the United States, or to an all-out cyber attack. Such revelations would certainly light our emotional fuse. There would be fiery political rhetoric, dramatic news media coverage and a groundswell of support for taking the necessary defensive measures. But the fact of the matter is that these man-made threats to our power grid are piddling compared to the danger of mega-blasts from the Sun. What's more, we are admirably, if not perfectly, protected against such enemy assaults by our eminently capable defense establishment. But we've been attacked by people before, so it is easy to conjure up fears of being attacked by people again. Merry Old Sol, on the other hand, would never dream of such a thing...

It's time to rally our defenses. We need to anthropomorphize the threat from outer space, turn it into an enemy that folks can gut level respond to. Let's take a cue from the naming of hurricanes and extend that practice to CME's (coronal mass ejections), space storms that hit the Earth. Instead of Hurricane Katrina, Space Storm Katrina, which, in fact, is expected to hit the over the next few years. For a fraction of what it would have taken to bolster the levees in New Orleans, we can plug up the holes in our power grid, and create hundreds of skilled jobs while we're at it. On October 27, 2009, President Obama announced that $3.4 billion in grants from the federal stimulus program would be allocated to updating the power grid, though not a penny is earmarked for protection from solar blasts. What say we redirect a small portion of those funds to batten down the hatches for when - and it is definitely a question of "when", not "if" -- Space Storm Katrina smacks us upside the head.