MOSCOW — The blackout that hit Moscow late last month wasn’t any better or worse than others that have struck big cities recently, say New York in August 2003. It is the same old thing over and over again — people stuck in subways and elevators, hospitals canceling lifesaving surgeries, crowds grimly dragging back home on foot as no public transportation is available.
A blackout can change your life instantaneously, particularly if you live in a metropolis. Residents dwelling on top floors suddenly stop bragging about their room with a view, reduced to total misery by elevator paralysis. Sometimes high-rises even lose their supply of running water, so one is unable to take a shower, flush a toilet or even fill a kettle. Coffee machines become as useless as Stone Age figurines, as do TVs, VCRs, and household gods like computers.
Be it America or Russia, public reaction to the calamity of a blackout is invariably freakishly odd. A horde of reporters will relate the breaking news to the public, a dozen playwrights will write dramatic pieces called “One Lady’s Fright” or “Candle Night,” hundreds of poets will flood literary magazines’ desks with oeuvres depicting hollow city frames, and Hollywood agents will get 75 movie ideas, all developing the horrors of the recent blackout.
While a few hundred people process the calamity artistically, there will be just one guy to fix the transformer that caused the whole mess — and he will do so poorly, guaranteeing more blackouts (and poems) in the near future, as he is unmotivated and underpaid.
Society seems to be more interested in savoring gruesome details of past power outages than in preventing new ones — or at least in preparing a cushion to meet the challenge. Despite all the previous screwups, cell phones still die during a blackout, as nobody has bothered to supply transmitters with energy backup devices, and subways still go dark and quiet since they don’t have reserve power generators either.
An alarming report from American nuclear power plants has coincided with the Moscow blackout: Many U.S. plants, the report says, do not have backup systems for sirens needed to warn people within a 15-km radius of a nuclear accident, should one happen.
How does one explain this shocking paradox: In a society totally dependent on electricity, the flow of energy is taken for granted, with little, if any, effort to actually secure it. More strikingly, this is a problem common for postindustrial United States, industrial Russia and pre-industrial Colombia: Everyone consumes electricity, but virtually nobody worries about power plants, electric cables and, yes, transformers. The transformer that incapacitated Moscow was 40 years old — a typical case.
Why is that? How did we come to believe that electricity flows on its own, without any real management and investment? What’s going to be the next stage of our consumerist ignorance? Will we start telling our kids that ice cream grows on icebergs?
Frankly, our image of the guy who fixes all problems related to power outages is that of a gloomy unshaven middle-aged man in greasy overalls, standing on a ladder and cursing so loudly and foully that we have to take our kids indoors. Where did this picture come from? What about highly educated and daring people behind a gigantic electric grid — scientists, engineers, technicians?
Our grandparents felt extremely lucky if they could get a degree in power engineering. Not too many of us envision that career for our kids.
A happy friend proudly informs you that her son has become a stock analyst or a graphic designer, or a fashion consultant — but almost never an engineer. Even computer science, which was every parent’s craze only 10 years ago is nowadays largely passe, having descended from pioneering technology to mere appliance craft — as for an electric lamp or coffee machine. For most parents, even a child aspiring to become a poet is better than a son working at a local power plant. True, there is little money in poetry, but there is still a lot of promise there: What do they call the bonus . . . Nobel Prize or something?
No power plant engineer will ever get a Nobel Prize. Being a NASA engineer is cool, for he develops something challenging and definitely new, like a mission to Mars. The average engineer is pictured as maintaining a system invented ages ago.
This is ironic. How many people really care about missions to Mars, or any other place in outer space, for that matter? We won’t find awesome dinosaurs there that we could bring to our zoos or exciting ruins that we could keep arguing about for the next two centuries. And, frankly, even if we did — what is more important, dinosaurs from Mars or electric heating at home?
What is worth investing in more, space ships or power plant transformers? Mind you, it looks like we will be unable to invest in both, since we are poorer than we thought, with our national budgets being exhausted by security measures, the needs of bureaucracy and embezzling big business.
Constantly fussing about frontier technology — the Internet in 1995, cell phones in 1998, missions to Jupiter in 2005 — we tend to ignore the basics. Faulty relays, antiquated cables and jamming switches are never slow to remind us how important, actually, they are. But for some reason we still haven’t learned the lesson.
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