A black swan event redux

As July closed out, and temperatures soared across a drought-stricken America — some 3,100 records were set in the month of June — there was an occurrence that barely registered in the global media and was soon eclipsed by other headlines.

The place was India, a nation of well over 1 billion people and growing at an astonishing rate. The incident was the largest power outage in history, affecting some 620 million people. It qualified as a black swan event (or so it seemed), meaning it was random, a one-off. Not unlike other natural or manmade disasters.

The monsoons that annually sweep across India beginning in June were delayed and the country sweltered, the heat gauze-like, the sun unrelenting. Indians waited and sought relief in air-conditioned buildings and homes. Rudyard Kipling, author and denizen of India past, wrote, "Every door and window was shut, for the outside air was that of an oven. The atmosphere within was only 104 degrees, as the thermometer bore witness, and heavy with the foul smell of badly trimmed kerosene lamps; and this stench, combined with that of native tobacco, baked brick, and dried earth, sends the heart of many a strong man down to his boots, for it is the smell of the Great Indian Empire when she turns herself for six months into a house of torment."

Over the last century, India has developed an enormous, tangled, cobbled-together, leaking power grid that groans under the weight of an increasing demand, a demand that is outstripping availability. Stand on any corner in urbanized India and glance up and notice a maze of endless wires, many bootlegged, looping from building to pole, an antiquated grid in need of $400 billion in infrastructure investment. Not unlike our own.

During the outage, all air conditioning ceased, passenger and commuter trains stood idle, traffic halted, water treatment plants shut down, businesses closed. A rippling darkness soon engulfed half of the nation's population.

In all of the reporting about the blackout, little mention was made of its global implications.

What took place in India was not a black swan event. It was not random, nor was it an outlier; instead, it was a harbinger of things to come and it raises the question: Is India our dystopian future writ large, a cautionary tale imagined by writer Philip K. Dick, one that we continue to ignore at our peril? What lies ahead, promised by sci-fi fantasists such as Dick, may not be a stainless-steel, blue-skies world, buoyed by electronic gadgetry and endless consumerism; rather, it may be a far darker reality, frayed and oppressive.

What is required to keep emerging nations such as India and China (as well as the first world) awash in energy and goods is fundamentally unsustainable. This we know. Yet we also know that the race has been joined for those global resources that still remain, no matter the cost to the environment.

We know that we are voraciously stripping the earth of finite reserves of minerals, oil and gas; natural habitats are shrinking; forested lands leveled; coral reefs are now vacant and lifeless; the warming oceans overfished; and while deserts expand, potable water is becoming the oil of the 21st century.

Niall Ferguson, of Newsweek, who reported on the blackout and referenced Kipling, points out that India's urban population will grow from some 340 million in 2008 to an estimated 590 million by 2030. There will soon be 68 cities with populations of over 1 million, plus six mega-cities of 10 million. In the past 10 years India's coal consumption has more than doubled, its oil consumption has increased by 52 percent, and its natural gas consumption has jumped by 131 percent. China's numbers are more emphatic: Coal consumption is up by 155 percent; oil 101 percent; gas 376 percent. Cars sold annually: 9.5 million, with 100 million currently on the road.

Global warming is the meta-message, yet we seem intent on ignoring it, barely cognizant of our current trajectory. To date, during the presidential campaign, not a word has been mentioned about the environment or extreme weather or the drought. And yet, the implications are staggering. The light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.

Consider the stunning silence generated by the recent United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Rio Summit. Some 170 nations were in attendance, with 2,400 representatives of nongovernmental organizations, plus an additional 17,000 attending a parallel NGO forum. It is astonishing: Canaries in a thousand mine shafts are sounding their alarms. Science has spoken. Our jeopardy is palpable.

We see India, an eloquent, chilling, unsettling metaphor that portends calamity, and still we are trapped in our black swan cul-de-sac, our paralysis endemic, our silence deafening.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.

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