Sunday, January 20, 2008



This month is the tenth anniversary of the "Great Ice Storm" of 1998. this was an event that plunged much of eastern Canada, particularly Quebec, and the northeastern section of the USA into the deep-freeze as freezing rain downed power lines across much of that part of the continent. The freezing rain began on January 5th, and before long power transmission lines supplying major urban areas were down across the northeastern part of the continent. Cities across Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes declared states of emergency. in Montreal boil water advisories were issued as one of the city's two filtration plants had shut down due to the power outage. The Montreal subway was closed, and most businesses shut down. The ice storm continued for several days, and by the end of the week over 4 million people were living without power in the depths of a January winter. The Quebec government took three days to request federal assistance. At the same time Hydro Quebec employees worked an average of 16 hours a day to try and restore power. Despite their efforts it was several days before power could be restored to many areas, particularly in the Montreal area. For a collection of media coverage of this storm see .

The great ice storm of 1998 was, of course, only one of many large scale power outages that have become increasingly frequent worldwide in recent years. See the Wikipedia article on Power Outages for coverage of many of them and also to see how they are becoming more frequent. The ice storm was remarkable in that it both came at the worst possible time of year and that it involved other effects that made recovery even more difficult (blocked roads, etc.). In terms of area affected it was hardly the largest such event.
What is the problem here ? The answer is simple. As the provision of electric power becomes increasingly centralized, and as the delivery becomes increasingly dependent upon a complicated network of interacting systems failures inevitably become more and more common. Most of the major outages cited in the Wikipedia article didn't depend upon natural disasters to bring them about. They happened because the more complicated a machine becomes the more ways it has to fail. One doesn't have to invoke the hand of "extreme weather events", though if one believes some such things will become increasingly common with global warming. Much ado has been made in the USA of the vulnerability of their power grid to "terrorism". Many resources have been put into safeguarding (or at least "studying") against this event that has yet to occur while at the same time few resources have been devoted to safeguarding against events that have and do happen and that are becoming more frequent.
The problem ? Yes, terrorism is "sexy", and one can garner funds to study an imaginary threat instead of events that occur with some frequency. But even more importantly the obvious solution to such widespread disruptions is one that is totally unacceptable to those who have power (in the political and economic sense) in both the private and public sectors. Building power generation facilities on a local rather than a continental scale appeals to nobody but those who might be most affected by the loss of power, those without economic means. Power megaprojects are indeed profitable, but only with the support of massive public investment. This sort of subsidy distorts the market and squeezes out other local initiatives that might grow up in the absence of such free money. One can "harden" the power distribution system as much as one likes, and one can try and build in redundancy to cushion the effect of local events. But such "fixes" often increase the chances of the very failures that they are trying to avert, as they increase the complexity of the system.
Locally generated power can be produced in any number of different ways, many of which are being developed today. It is such questions that anarchism should address, and to some extent it is doing so already. Unlike other political philosophies, anarchism places the highest value on local independence, and certainly being able to provide for electric power locally is high on the list of things that a community requires for real independence. Without such a fallback resource a community is inevitably tied to a central power, whether that power be political or economic. Should a natural disaster (as opposed to one that is created solely by the centralized nature of the power grid) occur the effects will remain localized and could be dealt with much easier. As it is the authorities whom we are supposed to trust as having our best interests in mind have pretty much bowed to the inevitability of such large scale disaster, and their "planning" is much more about how to refine their response than to prevent such things. Perhaps prevention should be looked at as more important. But that requires examining the vested interests that live off the way that things are presently irrationally organized.

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