If the power went out … forever

What would you do if the power went out? Not temporarily, but forever.
That’s one of the lessons of the book “Alas, Babylon” by Pat Frank, an apocalyptic study of a small central Florida community’s reaction to atomic war. The year is 1959, and the community is situated just the right distance from the surrounding military bases to avoid atomic blasts and is protected from fallout by prevailing winds.
The story’s protagonist, Randy Bragg, receives a tip from his brother, Mark, who serves in the Air Force, about impending nuclear war, and he cashes a large check from Mark to buy supplies. After an argument with the bank owner over cashing the sizable check, Randy says, “Mark asked me to make a bet for him. … Mark is simply betting that checks won’t be worth anything very shortly, but cash will.” With that cash, Randy buys three grocery carts’ worth of food and two cases or so of liquor. He thinks he has planned well, but time and other people’s needs prove otherwise.
Randy hadn’t considered such simple things as sewing needles, for example, and after the bombs hit and everyone makes rushes on the hardware and grocery stores, cash becomes worthless and the barter system takes over. Randy finds himself missing coffee, which could not be transported even if the coffee plants had survived; and recorded music, which requires electricity. The locals in his neighborhood are fortunate because they tap an artesian well for their water supply and catch fish in the river. What the book illustrates, apart from its lessons about nuclear war, is our near total dependence on technology and infrastructure to deliver our wants and needs.
You get up in the morning and perform your ablutions in the bathroom using water brought to you through pipes either from a well or a city water plant. Both forms of supply depend on electricity, either to run a pump in the ground or to operate the plant. Plants generate electricity using coal brought by trains from out of state on rails made of steel made in other states, and of course trains rely on a multitude of support services to operate. Suppose the electricity stops — not a temporary outage, the kind that has us calling the power company asking when it will be restored, but a permanent outage, one that demands we make other arrangements. How will you get your water? If you own a lot or a farm you could install a hand pump, perhaps, but how. Who would dig the hole, and with what? Would any pumps be available if everyone has the same idea? If you live on the 10th floor of an apartment building, you may be out of luck, unless you want to tote water from the river. That would require sanitizing the water, perhaps by boiling, which requires a fire. If you were fortunate enough to live in an apartment with a fireplace, where would you get wood?  Chances are wood would quickly get snatched up, and its scarcity could lead to conflict, even murder. Even if wood were available, how would you transport it?
What happens when you wear out your shoes with all that walking you’ll do because automotive fuel is unavailable? Could you make new shoes? What material would you use? What tools? How about if you want to educate your children. All those encyclopedias that people have been discarding may be worth something since people can no longer “Google” everything. People who have gone paperless may suddenly find themselves wishing for paper and pencils and may have to resort to the ancient method of drawing figures with sticks in the sand.
See where this is going? Everything we use depends on technology and infrastructure. The push of the last few years toward local food is admirable, but growing that local food requires technology and infrastructure unless the farmer is using methods predating the mechanization of the 19th century — shovels, picks, hoes, scythes, and hands and knees — but those tools can break, and those methods are not conducive to abundance. It’s enough to make me want to install that hand pump now, while I can.

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