Home Features Apocalypse Now: Bushfires and a lesson for us all

Apocalypse Now: Bushfires and a lesson for us all

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Height of technology, 1960s style. Within a generation we've gone from the landline telephone to instant worldwide communications and, worryingly, a total reliance of technology for the basics of life

Yesterday we highlighted the Australian Bushfire appeal being organised by our local Leica dealer, Red Dot Cameras. John Shingleton in Australia, who has been monitoring the situation from close proximity, has pointed out the wider implications of the consequent breakdown in many of the things we take for granted in modern society. With our increasing reliance on technology, we are now woefully unprepared for cataclysmic events such as the fires in Australia.

John has been staggered by the extent to which the effects of the bushfires have made people realise just how easily the fabric of civilisation can suddenly break down. The intensity of the fires destroyed mobile phone towers and power transmission lines as well as internet cables. This, quite apart from the wider devastation, has demonstrated just how much we lose in the event of this type of natural disaster.

It also beings lessons for other countries, not quite so exposed to the effects of extreme weather, earthquakes of volcanos. Even in relatively immune Europe, for instance, the effects of successful hacking of infrastructure or a terrorist attack could have unforeseen consequences.

Height of technology, 1960s style. Within a generation we've gone from the landline telephone to instant worldwide communications and, worryingly, a total reliance of technology for the basics of life
Height of technology, 1960s style. Within a generation, we’ve gone from the landline telephone to instant worldwide communications and, worryingly, a total reliance of technology for the basics of life

Shutdown

As John has seen in Australia, with no power everything shuts down. Mobile phones, land-line phones, local TV and radio and the water and sewage systems were all shut down suddenly whole swathes of Australia.

“Even where there was back up power, ATM and credit card terminals did not work because the mobile networks and internet were down.

“Many people, particularly holidaymakers,  who were evacuated were carrying only minimal or no cash because they had relied on cashless payments. But petrol stations and shops could only accept cash.

“The only information people could get was from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on their car radios or from battery-operated transistor radios — and not many people have these nowadays.”

Only last year I had a very minor and mundane taste of what could happen, even in London. Power cuts are rare in London and other cities in the UK because power transmission is largely hidden underground. Indeed, I can remember only one power cut in the past ten years.

However, on this particular day, I was enjoying a coffee when the local area of west London suffered a two-hour power cut. Not only could I not pay for my coffee, but also I couldn’t even use cash because the tills wouldn’t work.

I subsequently discovered that most shops and cafes had had to close for the same reason. It is just one small, minor illustration of how reliant we have become on technology. And this reliance can only get more extreme as the convenience of cashless shopping increases. We are becoming increasingly vulnerable.

From zero to high tech

All this has happened relatively suddenly in the great scheme of things. For a large chunk of my life, the landline telephone was about as technical as it got. We didn’t miss being in constant touch with friends because we couldn’t imagine such a thing.

Our family home had no central heating and we still had an antiquated coal-fired range which, in an emergency, could be used for cooking (although of course, we had gas and electricity). In many ways were as self-sufficient as the Victorians had been, and much more resourceful and independent than people today. All that is now lost.

Them were't days: Not so long ago life was sustainable and carried on at a simple pace through thick and thin. How many of us these days could even light a fire and cook a can of beans?
Them were’t days: Not so long ago life was sustainable and carried on at a simple pace through thick and thin. How many of us these days could even light a fire and cook a can of beans?

Now, almost everything depends on technology. As John points out, few of us possess a battery-operated radio (at least, not one that takes replaceable batteries and isn’t reliant on USB power for charging) and almost every aspect our daily life is remotely controlled.

If this control broke down for any appreciable time, civil unrest would be a real danger. And, as far as I can tell, preparation for such eventualities is virtually non-existent.

As a result of the experience of the past two months, John has decided never to travel far away from home without a good cushion of cash. He is already accustomed to carrying emergency bottled water in the car with him in case he gets stranded on the road in the heat — something which many of us don’t really think about in our densely populated and mild-mannered countries.

As John says, Australians are going to turn into a nation of people like the American survivalists who have stores of food and water (and ammo) ready for the apocalypse — although in the Australian case it has come sooner than he had feared.

If you wish to contribute to the Red Dot Cameras appeal follow this link to yesterday’s article.

25 COMMENTS

  1. Many years of living afloat – on a boat or two – has meant that I’ve known how to be pretty self-reliant ..made my own electricity (..in that pot on the stove..), knew how to open a tin of beans (..or a can of worms..) and can fix an engine (petrol or diesel) and use a battery-powered walkie-talkie.

    But I do tend to use cash rather than credit cards. I do keep my diary on my (internal-battery, USB-charged) phone, but I also keep a pen and paper in my pocket. I also keep loose change for landline phones, for people who are selling the ‘Big Issue’, for public toilets, tipping taxi drivers, etc. So I’m not too reliant on electronic technology.

    London Transport – or whatever it’s called now – used to have (..does it still?..) its own electricity generating station at Lots Road in Chelsea, so that if the main National Grid goes off, the electric underground tube trains can still keep moving.

    When I worked just down the road from the Guardian newspaper, we’d hear the roar of their emergency electricity generators start up for a practice run each week ..and, of course, theatres and cinemas MUST have constantly-charged backup batteries – with about three hours of emergency power in them – to provide lights in case of a power blackout, so that there’s no stampeding in the stalls.

    Australia, it seems from reports I’ve read, may not have been paying sufficient attention to the Aboriginal elders who, in years before, intentionally lit low-level “cold burn” fires to clear away dead wood, forest-floor leaves and other accumulating kindling, and which created fire breaks to prevent the inevitable bushfires spreading without boundaries.

    Civilisation and new technology are great ..but old technology and old knowledge can also provide safety backups and background reliability.

    • David, yes the Aborigines did selective burning but on a relatively small scale and when conditions were right. The ferocious bushfires this season have come about because of the terrible dry conditions caused by the severe drought down the eastern part of Australia. The bush is tinder dry. Even here in Terrigal right on the coast it has not rained properly for over 5 months although heavy rain is forecast in the next three days. The chronic drought is undoubtedly the result of climate change. It has also been very hot-we are talking hotter than ever recorded hot. Dry,very hot and strong winds. An unhealthy mixture.
      This it would not have happened if they had cleared the bush narrative is a diversion being put about by the climate change deniers. The fires were started by arsonists is part of the same narrative. Yes there were some small fires started by arsonists-they always are- but according to the chief of the rural fire services in NSW -and he should know-98% of the fires were started by lighning strikes. After a big fire starts embers can be blown huge distances and the heat of the fire creates a micro weather system with more lighning-hence more fires.
      The really big Gospers Mountain fire which has enveloped Sydney and the Central Coast where I live in smoke for weeks started in mid-October as the result of a lightning strike deep in a wilderness area.
      Why are there so many climate change deniers in Australia you may well ask. The answer is simple. Coal extraction is Australia’s biggest export industry and it employs tens of thousands and the coal industry is a massive donor to the liberal national party who form the government. Simple.

  2. The challenge, for which most governments and utilities are not prepared for, is cyber terrorism. The Stuxnet attack on the Natanz facility in Iran back in 2010 proved that point. Most utilities have not hardened their defensive systems so remain vulnerable to attacks that lead deliberately to civil unrest.

    What a sad world we live in.

    • “Your David B. plug-in needs updating. For details go to http://www.davidB.disruptor-pretending-to-be-Adobe.com and log in with your email address, bank account details, social security number and driving licence. Don’t be surprised if your files, and much of your country’s infrastructure, have now been locked and encrypted. Please remit $300 in bitcoin to DavidB. to regain access to your National Health Service, electricity supply and nuclear submarines. Have a nice day.”

  3. I am concerned for our future generations. Most of my son’s friends cannot change a tap washer, let alone do the minor repairs around the house that need doing every few months. They may be “woke” but they are certainly not self-sufficient. Thrown into a world without internet or smart phones, they would not be able to fall back on their solution for a lack of knowledge: watch a YouTube how-to video.

    • Yep, the older I’ve got the more I have learned to appreciate mechanical things that I can fix myself instead of electronics that die suddenly and are unfixable.Losing the skills we once had is also very, very worrying indeed.Some people are sent into a state of panic as soon as they can’t log onto their internet account. I’ve literally seen this. That’s because most of their life is tangled up in there.
      Thankfully, that’s not me.

  4. Australia embarked on a policy whereby the wealthier members of society could self generate power (generally from solar panels) and then sell back the unused surplus to the power grid, which resulted in the better off members of society paying less (on a net basis) for their power than the less well off members of society. An object lesson in being careful about what you wish for.

    You may have your mobile phone charged up, but if the base stations are down then your phone is not much good for communications. When I was a telecoms regulator in the Middle East I found that mobile base stations only had diesel powered back up in the event of electric power going down. I pointed out the obvious case for using solar power for the base stations in that region, but that was difficult as we were in an oil producing country. I believe that the common sense of what I proposed has now dawned upon the operators in the region.

    Electric cars will only ‘save the planet’ if the electricity they consume is produced by sustainable means. I believe that Mike has a story about the impact of electric vehicles on the ‘national grid of Chiswick’. At present there is a clear lack of a cohesive strategy concerning the use of electric vehicles at both national and international levels. We keep hearing about it, often from self interested parties, but there is no clear leadership both at governmental and inter-governmental levels.

    All of this is by way of saying that what comes around goes around and there is really no such thing as a free lunch. The same is true of how we treat the planet. God never promised us that we could do what we liked with this place.

    William

    • Indeed, William. There has been a long-standing scheme here in the UK where over-generous incentives were given to encourage solar panels. Many early adopters were promised (and still get) extravagant payment for the energy their return to the grid.

      In the same way, incentives aimed at encouraging EVs largely benefit the wealthy who are happy to have an electric second car. Meanwhile, the misguided crusade against diesel cars has disadvantaged millions who need their cars and can’t afford to rush out and buy something less polluting. In any case, modern a Euro 6 diesels are arguably kinder to the environment than petrol engines. They certainly use less fuel.

      Back in 2015, I had a Nissan Leaf as part of a national experiment to calculate the effect on local power supplies by having up to ten vehicles charging in the same street. The result was that the local substation failed and had to be rebuilt. Extrapolate that throughout the country and we have a problem.

      • As far as electric cars are concerned, I still wonder what they are going to do with used batteries which contain a fair amount of mercury, lead and and a few not so environmently-friendly products. I don’t want to get political as it is not Macfilos policy but I don’t understand why we would want to increase our GNP or GNI if we can’t live properly on this planet

    • William , just not true that the Australia govrernment.embarked on a policy whereby the wealthier members of society could self generate power (generally from solar panels) and then sell back the unused surplus to the power grid, which resulted in the better off members of society paying less (on a net basis) for their power than the less well off members of society.
      Another fossil fuel lobby diversionary statement. Australia has the highest uptake of household solar power in the world. It is absolutely not true that solar power installations are confined to wealthy people. Look out of the window of a plane as it comes into land in Sydney and look at all the solar cells on rooftops. Believe me William there are not that many wealthy people here. Yes there are subsidies and yes you get paid for the electricity you sell back to the grid. If the federal government had committed to an energy plan with renewables in the mix instead of backing coal fired power generation electricity prices would have fallen. And yes renewables are not a 100% answer but by now we should have had big battery installations ( South Australia already has one), stored hydro and gas fired power generation.
      finally I have a solar installation on my house but it was not costly and the payback is under 3 years. With interest rates at their current levels it is an investment which most home owners can afford.

      • The rates for the power being “sold back” are now quite miniscule and frankly (on this part of the equation) are not worth the exercise. This was inevitable, the privatised power companies will earn less and less as more domestic feeds back into the grids come online, so they’re always going to offer less and less for the buy back.

        However, they’re absolutely worth doing for purely for your own use. If youre planning on staying in the house for a decade, the solar will more than pay for itself – in this country at least, where sunshine hours are very high. The decreasing cost of storage methods will just add to the appeal.

        The travesty of Australian political thinking has been the deliberate ignoring of renewable energy industries. We could/should be a world power (no pun) in renewables, particularly solar, and exporting the technology. Instead, we continue to ride on the back of the comparatively low-value/high bulk coal exports.

        Melbourne had the worlds worst air quality yesterday. Last week it was Canberra. What people who havent been here probably fail to grasp is that whilst the area so far burnt out is around 50% of the land area of the UK, we have so much more land in similarly dangerous condition right around the country.

        I saw first hand the 2009 fires in Victoria . 173 people died that day, the firestorms were literally unstoppable. Fire crews watched the water evaporate as soon as it left the hoses. Radiant heat killed from hundreds of meters away. We thankfully seem to have learnt one key lesson from that disaster – get people out of harms way. This year, the CFA issued an evacuation order for all of East Gippsland. I’ve never seen that before. We’ve unfortunately still had fatalities, but mercifully nothing like we saw a decade ago.

        But one thing our current government hasnt learned is the overarching driving factor. Increasing heat and decreasing rainfall. For the most vulnerable country in the world to these factors, its both breathtaking and shocking.

  5. See technology is not all that it is cracked up to be, and doesn’t survive the most basic of failures in our infrastructure of society.

    I have been sadden to watch the destruction to the unique wildlife of Austrailia, we have the ability to understand and at least try where we can to escape and evade this awful tragedy, but the animals are often helpless, in their habitat as it is destroyed by the most fearful of all the elements. My tenner will join the Red Dot Crusade tomorrow.

    As for electric cars – dont get me started, I am not convinced they are the great planet saving device that many claim. Bit like vaping being better than smoking – poppycock. I am waiting for the first claim against someone for passive vaping, I am sure it will be a thing if I can taste it in the cloud of haze that follows someone, then it must be an issue. In the same way we will miraculously discover in a decade or two that electric cars are harmful to the planet in their production, their charging and the stuff we use to make them be. I wonder if it will be demonised like diesels and petrol engines, with some other technology coming along to replace it.

    I bet the rich still make money off it though.

  6. I live in the northeastern US. I have a pretty good location for solar, as far as the NE goes. A friend manages and builds power substations and transmission lines. It takes 8 to 15 years to plan and build same. The lines are typically on a 30 to 50 year payback cycle. Most lines are above ground. There are always failures from ice, wind and drunks hitting phone poles. I’ve hesitated on solar for several reasons.
    First, we pay a monthly charge for electricity and a separate charge for the transmission lines to deliver the power, both per KW used. As more people go solar, the payback to the utility is not there. At some point- not far away as I understand it- the lines will not be cost effective, even with distributed solar generation happening and feeding back to the grid. I would like a large ‘battery wall’ for night time, and that only accelerates the line problem. So, at some time the lines will cease, OR the cost of the lines to the house for no-sun days (and nights!) will become astronomically expensive. Local government has not come up with a solution, or a cap to transmission costs. Without that, it’s tough to get a handle on the real cost.
    Second is roof damage. I personally had a satellite dish mounting pad on the roof leak. The water damage was > $60K US. Unfortunately, damage insurance is carried by the contractor. They declare bankruptcy, and that’s that. A large swath of panels on the roof with all those mounting holes frightens me. When sales guys show up to try to sign me up for solar, I always ask about who insures the roof. They tell me they “will get back to me”. That has never happened.
    So, solve those two problems and I’m all in.
    For What It’s Worth-
    Bob

    • There is a new type of battery bank starting to appear in mobile homes and Campervans. It can power a microwave or 13amp device for a period of time and charges up fairly quickly.

      I suspect this will be the battlers of the future and will fulfil your need perhaps.

      I’ve done my tenner with red dot

      If I’m successful 😂 then I will write about Using the camera.

  7. good one Mike.

    it is a indeed a very philosophical topic !

    Whilst technology is good but what good it is, if it doesn’t benefit humanity. A good mix of technology and being connected to the nature, and moving to a balanced capitalistic system from the current extreme – profit as the only motive for businesses – would augur well. We can take a leaf out of some of the scandic countries and invest more in education and having our priorities revisited time and again. Else as you mentioned civil unrest could be real around the world. and Technology will enable this unrest ! hopefully this would lead to a better world !

    Best
    Kannan

    • I agree in technology aiding unrest. We have seen this already — a sort of crowd funding of protest. It is but a short step to mob rule and that is a terrible risk. Democracy works as long as governments are elected an allowed to make the decisions. Recently, it seems, everyone expects to have a hand in deciding every small aspect of policy.

      • agree. In countries where democracy is not matured and people don’t agree to disagree the results can be disastrous. I can see it already happening in india. unfortunately this is starting to happen in the west as well. If i read some of the comment sections of a Trump social media post, it gets really shocking ! just like how consumers today are far removed from the final product from production, governments are to an extent disconnected from its people. and their needs.

      • As far as I can see (living in Denmark which has just passed its first climate law), most governments (Scandinavian not excepted), except those blatantly in denial on the climate crisis are trying to ride two horses at the same time: proclaiming concern for climate change (occasionally crisis!) and seeking to carry on as before, i.e. to avoid making radical decisions. This is the fundamental cause for increasing unrest, especially among the young – and let us remember that the main swathe of current protest started in a Scandinavian country with the lonely vigil of one young schoolgirl, not some kind of crowd-funded protest. Of course mass movements together with a perceived lack of decision-making on the part of those elected are a dangerous cocktail, but so is the heel-dragging or absence of urgent response against which the snowballing protests are protesting !!

  8. I agree with all of the above.
    Here in the US, polls show 40 to 60% of the populace believe warming is a hoax, which is the Trump line. In some casual discussions with others it can get quite testy very quickly, and the topic is very much socially avoided. I suspect that when November 2020 rolls around (voting time), there will be violence. Very sad. It is clearly profit before planet.
    So I am singularly focused on the Red Dot. Hey, we escape to where we can…

  9. “But petrol stations and shops could only accept cash” Aha! And just to remind you Mike, didn’t you write about the wonders of cashless payments?
    Apart from natural disasters just imagine what will happen if the economic / banking system goes down and ATM’s suddenly stop functioning. People, particularly in large cities that depend on supermarkets and services are going to be in a complete mess.
    “They had relied on cashless payments” Hmm, never a good idea.
    Always have a back up system at home that doesn’t depend on the internet and the power grid.
    Keep growing some of your own potatoes and veg and if you want to be sure get at least a couple of chickens. You never know 🙂

    • Wasn’t it called The Good Life? You are right, but how far can we go? I am a convert to cashless transactions and, these days, seldom pay for anything in cash. The barber was the only place that wouldn’t take electronic payment and I saved that by shaving off my remaining locks. I now shave the lot, neck, head, face, every day. So that solves that. However, I do keep cash about my person for emergencies, being a sensible sort of chap. Precautions are warranted, but I don’t think its a solution to completely ignore the benefits brought by technology. I embrace them, but tend to sup with a long spoon.

      • The SpaceX Starlink project may be the ultimate solution to the connection problem, but only if it can provide the necessary bandwidth at a reasonable price. I have my doubts about that. Then again, I have doubted Musk’s ability to deliver many times before and he keeps coming through.

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