Sunday, September 09, 2007


Not too long ago I was marooned for an entire day at Chicago O'Hare airport. While there, I got the impression that the standard uniform for airline passengers is now a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. Surprisingly, this uniform is worn not only by children, but also by mothers and fathers with families headed for vacations, most college students, many middle-aged businessmen, and even some senior citizens. Whatever one thinks of the aesthetics of such apparel--and on many people the aesthetics are none too pleasing--I wondered if this attire could be used as an index of how modern, jet-faring people in America think about preparedness. (This has implications for how we Americans think about long-term threats such as climate change and resource depletion. But, I'll come back to that later.)

How hard is it to imagine running through O'Hare airport to make connections? And, yet I saw some people who had to remove their flip-flops in order to do so. Had it not occurred to them that flip-flops might not be the best choice for footwear given the exigencies of air travel? Perhaps they'd never had to run in an airport. Perhaps they'd never stubbed their toes. But, surely they should have known that they would be obliged to take their flip-flops off during the security check. They would then have to tramp through the metal detector area where thousands of other bare feet from around the world (including those from tropical zones where, I imagined, exotic fungal diseases thrive) had tramped before. Now, I agree that socks may be a less than the optimum public health measure while walking through such an area, but I told myself that at least they provide a barrier between my feet and those of thousands of others.

And, where did these T-shirt-clad denizens of the air put the myriad pieces of paper one collects while making such a trip: boarding passes, itinerary, baggage claim ticket, parking ticket and so on? They had no pockets in their shirts. I admit they could have crammed these things into the pockets of their shorts; but then this only applies to those wearing shorts with pockets rather than the athletic ones which were so often on display. And, where exactly were their wallets? Some, inadvisably, had put their wallets in the back pockets of their shorts making themselves easy targets for even an amateur pickpocket. For others their wallets were nowhere in evidence. Perhaps these unseen wallets were in carry-on bags or daypacks, that is, for those who actually had them.

And, did it occur to these travelers that they might have to go outdoors at some point? That sometimes it rains as it was doing that very day? Did they bring a windbreaker or a compact umbrella, just in case? I suppose some might have, but I didn't see any evidence of this either.

Few of the T-shirt crowd, however, failed to produce a cellphone upon which they were constantly nattering. It was the only thing one might call preparedness, and on this day cancelled flights and rebookings were the topics of many conversations. But I have found that under other circumstances, calls are usually filled with a very boring play-by-play of each caller's trip or simply idle chatter intended to draw down unused monthly minutes before they expire.

For these travelers--and they were a large portion (maybe half?) of the airline passengers I encountered--it appeared that sunny day follows on sunny day, that a day at the airport is more or less the equivalent of a day at the beach. Of course, these passengers were trying to be comfortable while traveling. I understand that. But, it seemed that comfort was their only thought. Contingency planning did not appear to be on the menu.

I admit that the shops and restaurants lining the concourses of our major airports provide much of what even the most absent-minded traveler might need, so long as he or she has ready cash. Why plan when someone else will provide what you need, where you need it, the moment you finally realize you need it? This just-in-time mentality has infected nearly every part of American life, and it has made us poor contingency planners, unable to imagine a world in which our every need isn't met right here, right now without any foresight on our part.

For all my carping, I got my comeuppance when the electricity went out at my home a couple evenings after my transit through O'Hare. Because I live in a city, these rare outages, when they do occur, usually last for only two or three hours at most. But the sudden, horrific storm which caused this outage left me and much of the city without electricity for 24 hours. I found a flashlight and candles. But, I did not have the correct size of batteries for my radio. With the phones out as well, I could get no information whatsoever. I was unprepared.

The next morning I went by car out beyond the city into the suburbs where the electricity still flowed. Many eager city residents like myself were lining up for food, drink and ice at the remaining open grocery stores. The lines weren't really that long considering what had happened. Yet, tempers flared when checkout clerks failed to move the lines along as quickly as some of the antsy shoppers desired. And, it was here in the store that I realized that I had made certain mental preparations. When the lights went out and didn't come back on within the expected time, I told myself that someday I might actually have to live with intermittent power. While standing in line at the store, I told myself that someday I might live under circumstances where long lines are the rule rather than the exception. Someday I might feel lucky to have anything resembling refrigeration. Someday a store such as this one might be considered a luxury shop filled with items far too expensive for most people. And, thinking back to my day at O'Hare, I imagined that someday, perhaps in my lifetime, O'Hare might become an empty shell rather than a swarming hive of activity.

How many Americans have thought about even one of these possibilities? As long as every necessity is being offered up to the vast majority cheaply and conveniently, how many will have the heart to tackle such long-term problems as climate change and resource depletion? How many will even understand that these problems threaten the very civilization that conveniently delivers cheap goods of every kind to them?

Part of the preparation for the challenges we face is to exercise the imagination, both to imagine what we might have to do without, and how we might (happily, if possible) do without it or improvise another way to obtain what we need. But how do we spark that imagination before the onset of catastrophe? That is a critical question for all those concerned about building a sustainable society.


Hanley Tucks said...

It was my understanding that in the light of the useless and even counterproductive government response Hurricane Katrina, many Americans were making their own preparations, returning in some ways to the Cold War bunker-in-the-backyard days?

yooper said...

Good thing the power went out when you were at home and not at the airport. Your story might have been quite different.

Anonymous said...

Human beings can deal with far worse, and many around the world do, every day.

It may be a shock when we Americans don't actually have electricity 7x24, but that really shows how good the system has been.

The trick I think is to recognize the actual uptime (at least 99.9% in your area) and compare that to regions with genuine troubles.

And certainly it would be an improper generalization to say that one day without power implies decline and fall. That is nonetheless the visualization that hampers peak oil.

Since we can see how bad one day without power is, we can fear one year ...

yooper said...

odograph, without question our electrical grid in this country is the enevy of the world. However, it's only as good as it's weakest link.

Fact is, all of this country's infrastructure is relying upon continous electrical power. Time being the essence, before cascading problems become insurmountable.

One day without power is manageable, this does not imply, "decline and fall". I did not know that, that visualization hamperd peak oil. Could you be more clear about this?

I'm not worried about a day, or two, maybe three....After that life without electricity quickly becomes a life and death matter...

If one region of the country's three grids failed and could not be brought back up within a week, a die-off would begin in earnest. How else could it be? Even if the rest of the country could come to the aid of those in that region, we could not deliever the amount of resources needed, "in time".....

Thanks, yooper.

Anonymous said...

"odograph, without question our electrical grid in this country is the enevy of the world. However, it's only as good as it's weakest link."

Strictly speaking, only true in a system without redundancy. ;-)

In a redundant system, it is only as weak as the probability of concurrent failure across the weakest links.