Plugged in

Humans have had civilization for a lot longer than they have had electricity. By “civilization” I mean all those organizing structures and practices that keep social groups together. A common language or religion, for example. A transportation network with roads, canals, bridges, and ports. A water supply and a scheme for dealing with waste. A communication network with news, information, and mail. Arable land and agricultural surpluses. Markets. Import and export of commodities. Contracts. The rule of law. Educational institutions. Libraries. Town squares. Musical, artistic, and cultural events. Civilized places have these things. They had these things when oxen pulled plows, not diesel tractors, and when fire lit the night, not electricity.

Today, however, our civilization depends on electricity. Just look at the map. The lit-up regions are where most people live (click on the photo to embiggen).

If you want to destabilize human society just pull the plug. Imagine your life without electricity. Hint: you can’t. Electricity is as essential to you as the air you breathe and the water you drink. Think of electrical energy as the blood that flows through the world we’ve built.

We get electricity by burning coal and other fossil fuels. The heat makes steam, the steam turns turbines. If we are lucky, in some places, we can use falling water to turn those turbines. Or perhaps the wind or tides. We can collect sunlight and dump it to the grid or store it in batteries. With the threat of climate change even much-maligned nuclear fission is looking better and better. Atomic heat is a lot more efficient at making steam than burning hydrocarbons.

The cost of making electricity plummeted in the latter half of the 20th century. It has become so cheap and so abundant that we use it more and more and more. And there are more of us. And we are hotter in the summer than before so we need more electricity to stay cool. Air conditioning demand has been rising steadily for decades—expect that to continue.

Regardless of your political or cultural affiliation in these perverse, anti-social times, we are all better off with civilization and its institutions than without it. Chaos and anarchy make for great sci-fi plots but lousy living.

That means we should all care about our electricity supply. We need a robust and resilient electrical grid with redundancy in case of disasters. This collection of wires and poles and generators and whatnot is as important to our democracy as the founding documents. Thomas Jefferson would probably be aghast at mega-cities and a massive energy infrastructure, but those things are our world, not his. The pieces of the electrical puzzle mean nothing of course without the extraordinary human knowledge base that invented, built, and continues to run the system. Civilizations preserve and transmit important knowledge—that may the single most important thing any civilization can do, to make sure the next generation gets the benefits created by the previous one.

Technology gets so complex and mysterious at a certain point in its evolution that the people who understand it become increasingly like a priestly class. Their knowledge becomes inaccessible to the vast majority of the users of the technology and they become like shamans or sorcerers.

This is a bad thing. You don’t have to know how a polyphase synchronous motor works in order to expect that your electrical grid will deliver the goods. Not everyone is an electrical engineer. But the knowledge that these people have is not sorcery. It is not magic. And the technology has no value by itself but only as part of social structures that serve the needs of people. And we can all work on those.

I need to stay plugged in. You need to stay plugged in. Let’s all stay plugged in.

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