america goes pitch black


Over the last few months I’ve been in a lot of book signings. Most are fun and you meet interesting people but sometimes you sit for hours with little to do. Such was the case two weeks ago when Robert Clark and I were out of town at a signing. Things were slow when he said, “I heard that if the power grid goes down, 90 percent of the population will die in a year.”

“That sounds far-fetched,” I said. “No way that could happen.”

“Yeah,” he continued, “most people would not be prepared to deal with it.”

We got busy as a spate of people came up. Later, the signing (better than it started) ended and as we drove back to Columbia I thought about what an epic power failure would mean. I tried to imagine the big things that would change. The subtle things were more elusive. I did not get a warm, fuzzy feeling.

I know this is the season of mistletoe and ho, ho, ho so forgive me for being an old Scrooge but when you consider how much we love holiday lights it’s as good a time as any to discuss how we dependent we are on electricity. As electricity goes, so go our lives buts you probably have heard that some people are prepared to live without electricity. Some refer to these survivalists as “Preppers.” Now a lot of folks think of survivalists as kooks, but I don’t. I am not a prepper but all this survival business brings to mind the parable of the grasshopper and the ants. We who merrily go about thinking nothing bad will happen fall into the grasshopper category.

Other than a Clark Griswold Christmas light meltdown, what could take the national power grid down for a long time? Try a nuclear explosion. This possibility surfaced in 1962 during the Cold War when the U.S. military exploded a nuclear weapon high above a Pacific Ocean atoll. Operation Starfish, in part, sought to evaluate just what a nuclear explosion in space might do. A missile launched 900 miles from Hawaii carried a 1.4-megaton warhead programmed to explode 240 miles above the earth. It detonated as planned. What was unexpected was the magnitude of its electromagnetic pulse (EMP)—a burst of electromagnetic energy that fries electronics, overloads circuits, and rapidly changes electric and magnetic fields. The EMP unleashed chaos in Hawaii causing telephone outages and radio blackouts. Small potatoes to what would happen today if a much larger weapon expelled an EMP.

Now EMPs are nothing new. You’ve seen them. I present the common but lethal lightning bolt popular culture uses to scare the wits out of us. Remember the lightning bolt bringing Frankenstein to life? That was fiction. Science, however, portrays a more realistic and far more catastrophic doomsday scenario. An EMP could take out our food and water supplies, communications, banking, hospitals, law enforcement, military, transportation networks, and more. In a second we’d return to the dark ages.

Until recently, few paid attention to how easily an orbiting nuclear weapon could generate an EMP. If one does, life as we know it would come to a cold, dark end. Consider how dependent we are on electronics, smart phones, and internet-based services. But the real threat is our dependence on life fundamentals such as electricity itself and heating and air systems, hospitals and medical emergency relief, and the ability to freeze, preserve, and cook food. Turn out the lights, the party’s over. We face trouble. Big trouble.

When it happens … it will feel local. You just strung that last troublesome string of Christmas lights, the one that kept tripping your junction box. You figured it out though and now it’s time for the show of shows. You flip the switch and the entire neighborhood goes black. “Oops,” but it’s not you. A very dark coincidence has happened. The entire country has lost power but you can’t know it. Nothing works. No TV, no radio, no Internet. Neighbors with flashlights converge. “What’s up?”

What’s up was a nuclear weapon that just detonated somewhere over the country. The days go by and no one knows what’s going on. Confusion yields to frustration, which leads to panic. Could you survive a prolonged outage? Say a year? A lot of experts say you can’t. Some experts say a prolonged loss of power would be like going back to pioneer days. Others say it would be a devastating plunge into the 1100s.

Reading this column, deep inside you may be getting a bad feeling. You know you’re addicted to electricity. Thank men by the names of Faraday, Volta, Tesler, and Edison, among others, who made us slaves to charged particles, but they enhanced life greatly didn’t they? It came with a price, however. We are nowhere as self-sufficient as generations who didn’t have the miracle of electricity. What they did have were the skills and knowledge to endure the seasons without electricity. And another vital thing. They knew how to grow and raise most of their food and weren’t so populous as we are today. Fewer mouths to feed to begin with. Those days are gone in our populous, lazy, over-indulged, obesity-plagued society.

What’s not gone are the microwaves, freezers, and ovens that made us slaves to progress. Well they will be useless once the power goes out. How long will your frozen food last? Not long. Well you can cook it, you say. Not unless you can cook over a fire primitive style. Charcoal will come in handy. For a while. The tanks for gas grills won’t stay full however and the electricity needed to make and transport new propane won’t be there. But that’s irrelevant. Frozen food will spoil faster than you can use it.

Okay, you say, I’ll just drive up to Uncle Rembert’s farm in Virginia. He’s still got a smokehouse and he and Aunt Betty are self-sufficient.

Really? First problem will be no traffic lights. Bigger problem will be fuel. Got enough gas to make the trip because gas pumps don’t work without electricity? Neither will generators. Fresh water will run out since water plants and pumps will be eerily quiet. Some predict mob violence and killings as people come to take what supplies and food you have. That’s why preppers like their guns, hidden caches, and bunkers.

Could it happen? Some say it will. Research what to do if you’re worried. I hear the basics you need are water, a simple way to cook, a larder that can keep you going for a long, long time. That means dry goods, canned food, dried fruit, and a safe place to store it all. And don’t forget a can opener. One that’s manual. And stockpile batteries and flashlights, though the coming Dark Age will use them up. For now just relax. The only strange thing flying over North America might be a reindeer with a red nose. So, if you can, have a merry Christmas and be careful with all those lights … you don’t want to cause a power outage.


Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at Email him at [email protected].

  1. You’re sounding like the science writer, James Burke, when he wrote about “technology traps”. Thanks for that, Tom. I strongly recommend his first “Connections” series if you’re interested.

  2. Frank Povah

    Loved this Tom – I only just found it for some reason. Even a few space debris strikes on a few satellites would bring utter chaos.

Comments are closed.