DISCUSSION GUIDE

Power Grid

Sustainability

CHARACTERS

I've included some information below to explore the ideas and themes presented in Patriarch Run. I'd also welcome your engagement at my blog on the issues I write about.

POWER GRID

Many people are surprised to learn that the fiction in Patriarch Run is premised on two under-reported, existential threats to our civilization. Over the course of the last 100 years, our society has unwittingly evolved to become absolutely dependent on a vulnerable critical infrastructure. As we learn in the story, 100 years ago you didn't need electricity to feed the population. That's because the "pre-electrical" carrying capacity of the planet was less than 2 billion people. Our vulnerable infrastructure has increased the planet's carrying capacity to 7.5 billion.

Ted Koppel reports that a devastating cyberattack on America’s power grid is not only possible but likely and that the United States is shockingly unprepared.

The bad guy in my story intends to commit mass murder on a scale never seen before in human history by using a sophisticated cyberattack to take down the power grid. I wish that vulnerability were fiction. But it’s not. You can actually kill a lot of people this way.

Lest that be dismissed as fear mongering, I’ve included this video from Ted Koppel, a respected journalist, about the subject.

In addition to a cyberattack, there are several mechanisms of destruction that could bring down the power grid and trigger an apocalyptic scenario like the one outlined in the book, including an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, physical sabotage, and a coronal mass ejection. That last event is naturally occurring and does not require any human malice or intent. As a matter of fact, on a timeline as large as the sun's, such events are routine.

I’ve included a brief NASA video below to show what a coronal mass ejection looks like.

This is what a corona mass ejection (CME) looks like. CME's carry over a billion tons of particles at over a million miles per hour. Courtesy of NASA.

I carefully researched the vulnerability of our critical infrastructure and depicted that vulnerability with great realism in the story. Then I had some of the leading experts in the country check the accuracy of my work. You can find a few of their endorsements here.

The power grid (or damage to it) can be used as a weapon of mass destruction. In a worst-case scenario, the events outlined above have the potential to destroy the power grid permanently. If that worst-case were to be actualized somehow, the grid couldn't be fixed. Not ever.

How can that be?

The critical hardware that would be damaged in such an event cannot be easily replaced. For example, the 2,100 large transformers of our power grid are handmade and take years to manufacture when our infrastructure is working perfectly. Society would collapse long before all the replacement transformers could be installed.

Without the use of widespread, reliable electricity, we could not grow, process, and transport enough food to feed the population. We could not distribute clean drinking water to our cities or provide sanitation or healthcare. There would be no commerce as we have come to know it. Such a collapse would probably result in widespread starvation, the reintroduction of diseases vanquished by modern sanitation, unprecedented social unrest, and a skyrocketing mortality rate.

And it gets worse.

The sudden loss of the grid would cause industrial explosions, producing plumes of toxic clouds. Without the delivery of diesel fuel, the backup generators at the country's nearly 100 commercial nuclear reactors would stop working. However, there is no shutting down the half-life of a radioactive isotope. So without functioning cooling pumps, the radioactive fuel would melt through the reactor cores. In other words, many our nuclear facilities would go Fukushima.

I know that sounds bad. That’s because it is. If you want to learn more about how vulnerable we are, you can read my story Patriarch Run. You can also watch three additional videos below. I’d recommend that you start with the National Geographic documentary. The other two videos are from credible sources, as well: NASA and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

You can also search the Vulnerable Infrastructure category of my blog to find more resources on this topic and to engage me on the matter. The material below is from the discussion guide found at the back of Patriarch Run.


Imagine a world in which the power went out for an extended period of time. Let’s say for months. How would you eat? Drink? What do you think would happen to your community as the weeks went by? Remember, fuel production is as vulnerable as the grid.

  • This blog post offers a good overview of the issue and includes expert interviews, a summary of the EMP Commission Report, links to other official reports, and all kinds of resources. It's a great starting point.
  • And you can find one of the most authoritative books on the subject here.

Below are a few resources you can explore if you want to learn more about the vulnerability of our critical infrastructure to a coronal mass ejection, a cyberattack, or an EMP attack. Joe Weiss and the authors of the EMP Commission Report are among the experts who helped me with Patriarch Run.

In July 2012, two coronal mass ejections narrowly missed Earth. If they had hit, researchers say, we could still be picking up the pieces.

Joe Weiss, a cyber security expert, gave a keynote presentation at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

 

This is a National Geographic documentary based on Dr. Peter Pry's book Electric Armageddon.

SUSTAINABILITY

The second under-reported, existential threat to our civilization can best be understood by using math. For most of us, it is a very difficult psychological task to accept that our species has become a collective threat to itself. I just don't think we're wired to readily make that connection, which might explain the cognitive dissonance that renders it so hard to correlate our collective behavior with its logical outcome.

Credit: NOAA

Anthropogenic atmospheric carbon dioxide, fossil fuel emissions, world gross domestic product (GDP), and world population for the past century.

Carbon dioxide data from Antarctic ice cores (green points), Mauna Loa Observatory (red curve), and the global network (blue dots).

Population growth makes just about every problem we face more difficult to solve. From national security concerns, to concerns about liberty and excessive regulation, to concerns about the ecosystem which sustains us all. For example, the graphic to the right illustrates how well atmospheric CO2 growth has tracked the world population trend over the past century.

This short version of The Most Important Video You'll Ever See covers the concept of exponential growth. You can watch Al Bartlett's original lecture (highly recommended!) here.

The math is straight-forward. A growing population, at any rate of growth, eventually doubles. That's a factual statement. We have to look past our normal horizon of concern to appreciate the power of exponential growth. The video below is a good tool to help make sense of that concept.

Another way to think about exponential growth is through the lens of our family histories. The population was half of what it is today when I was born. It was half that when my grandfather was born.

The more people, the more need. The math tells us that eventually you run out of space. You run out of resources. It's more than just that. When the population increases, regulation increases. Personal freedom decreases. I don't think this is controversial: the more people you put in a finite space the less freedom each individual will be afforded. 100 years ago when there were only about 76 million Americans, one person's pursuit of their happiness infringed less upon another's.

This historical trend is easy to see. There weren't as many regulations 100 years ago because there weren't as many people. Much of America's regulatory history can be viewed as an attempt to treat the undesirable symptoms of population growth (the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, for example). It is no secret that many of our laws, regulations, zoning requirements and covenants are attempts to prevent one person's liberty from infringing upon the happiness of others.

Generally speaking (and you can find exceptions to prove this rule), people who live in rural America enjoy more freedom with their property than people who live in densely populated urban centers. Moreover, this freedom has been consistently encroached upon over the course of the last 100 years by a steadily increasing national population density and the expanding American suburb and exurb.

More pertinent to my novel, there is a direct connection between the size of the population and national security. You can't feed our population of 325 million Americans (and growing) without our vulnerable critical infrastructure. The loss of the grid wasn't an existential threat 100 years ago because our grandparents were more self-reliant. They had more agricultural area per capita around their urban centers to meet their needs. It's just not possible for today's population, which is 4 times as large, to live as close to the land (as locally) as our relatives did 100 years ago. It is a statement of fact to say that many of our major metropolitan centers have outstripped their local carrying capacities. To meet the human need we now outsource the production of food and basic goods from around the world. That outsourcing makes us quite vulnerable to an interruption in supply.

Ironically, it was the advent of reliable, widely available electrical power that brought the key technologies online that allowed America to increase its short-term carrying capacity from about 76 million people 100 years ago to about 325 million people today. Those key technologies include: fertilizers, pesticides, mechanical irrigation, farm machinery, refined fuel to power that machinery, and food processing factories.

From a certain point of view, America has a very efficient food system capable of feeding an incredibly large population. However, every component of that system is now dependent on electrical power, including the manufacture of certain seeds, all aspects of farming, food processing, food packaging, food distribution and refrigerated food storage. In other words, America's population has grown so large that our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren are now absolutely dependent on a vulnerable power grid

Whether you're progressive or conservative, adding more people makes it harder to create the world you want to see.

You can search the sustainability category of my blog to find more resources on this topic and to engage me on the matter. The material below is from the discussion guide found at the back of Patriarch Run.

You'll also find spoilers below. If I were you, I wouldn't venture any further down this page until you've finished the book.


What effect does an increasing population have on the ecosystem which sustains us?

  • You can find spectacular images of this effect below. To learn more about this photo project click here.
  • Al Bartlett gives a great lecture about this topic here.
  • I review Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Sixth Extinction which sheds light on this question here.
  • This blog post might also be of interest: Are There Too Many People?

There are over 7 billion humans alive today. We all need to eat. We all need clothes. We all need shelter. Most of us will secure means of transportation, comfort, entertainment. All these things require energy to produce. And all these things are being provided by the finite resources of our planet. What do you think is a sustainable number for our population?

You can find my interview with Jack below. He was unapologetic in that interview about his intention. If it were up to you to talk him out of it, what would you offer as a humane solution?

  • I blog about the ethics of population here.

Below are a few organizations with a range of philosophies that I’ve partnered with in order to provide some resources to learn more about the sustainability of the human population.

National security is viewed as an issue on the right, politically, and sustainability as an issue on the left. It seems to me that renewable energy (wind, solar, geothermal, etc.) could contribute a lot to the interests of both parties. What role might renewables have in making a more secure and more sustainable civilization?

CHARACTERS

It’s probably come to your attention, by now, that I write about themes that matter a great deal to me. Above, I discussed two existential threats to our civilization: our vulnerable infrastructure and sustainability. A theme, perhaps, even more pertinent to the fate of the human species is our relationship with ourselves. At its core, Patriarch Run is a coming-of-age story. It’s about two types of fathers, one who sacrifices himself for his son and one who sacrifices his son for his mission. Rachel teaches us that we need to learn to love ourselves if we’re going to have anything to offer any one else. In that sense, the story is about making choices, about the type of father, the type of mother we aspire to be.

  • I wrote a reflection on these themes here.

Below are the interviews I conducted with Jack before he died and with Rachel and Billy. Below that, are the questions from the discussion guide found at the back of Patriarch Run.


Interview with Jack Erikson

Spring, 2010

Q: Jack, it’s hard not to think of you as the bad guy. Your intent seems to be mass murder on a scale never seen before in human history.

A: I don’t know how I can be seen in any other light. If I’m successful, there will be several billion deaths following my own.

Q: I’m having a hard time with that statement. You don’t seem like a malicious person. You obviously care deeply about your family. You’ve spent your life helping those without power to help themselves. I just can’t make sense of what you’re saying.

A: If I’m right in my calculations, the catastrophe I intend to inflict is the only way to save us from a much larger catastrophe in the future. 

Q: I’m sorry, but that sounds like crazy talk.

A: Do the math. At a growth rate of just one percent, which seems quite low, the human population will double every seventy years. How many people will be suffering from hunger seventy years from now? And if you manage to feed them, how much bigger can the population get before the whole ecosystem comes crashing down? We are in the midst of the Holocene extinction, the Sixth extinction. To do nothing is to doom us and all we know and love to Earth’s long and storied fossil record.

Q: Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that your math is right. Isn’t there another way? Can’t we reach sustainability humanely?

A: Obviously, I’ve come to a different conclusion.

Q: I don’t understand. You seem like a good guy. How could you . . . ?

A: There is a lot working against a humane solution, namely our own biology. We are wired to reproduce. We are wired for growth, for colonization. It’s what we do as a species. We’re aggressive. We’re territorial. Listen, you’re never going to get the elk to stop breeding. They need a wolf to be kept in balance, as do we.

Q: But birth rates are falling in developed nations.

A: Yes, they are. And the global population continues to grow. There’s not enough planet to pamper us all the way we pamper the West. The timeline for action is finite.

Q: What about your wife, your son?

A: We have to share the sacrifice. 

Q: You know you sound like a madman, right?

A: We’ve evolved for self-preservation, the preservation of the family, the tribe. Which means we will reproduce. That’s our evolutionary programing. We did not evolve to consider the whole planet in our quest for security. Our instincts are more short-sighted, self-centered, more primal.

Q: That sounds so cynical. You make it sound like we’re animals.

A: And you make it sound like we’re not.

Q: If you’re right, if you get everything you want, if you reduce the number, all you’re buying is time. It’ll happen again.

A: That’s someone else’s problem.

Q: Listen, I don’t want to talk about the math. I know there’s a heart beating in your chest. I’ve seen it. Your son, Jack. What about your son?

Jack slowly shook his head. His eyes grew red and filled with tears. Then he ended the interview.


Interview with Rachel Erikson

Fall, 2010

 Q: You might be my favorite person. I don’t know anybody else like you.

A: You’re kind to me.

Q: I’m serious, Rachel. What you did, what you endured. How is it you never gave up?

A: You might be giving me a little too much credit on that account. If you’ll recall, I did give up. It was too much for me.

Q: You’re referring to your grief, to your death?

A: Yes.

Q: That’s not the way I see it. I think Billy’s alive today because of you, because of your fierce love.

A: I don’t know what to say about that.

Q: It seems to me that your relationship with Billy has changed. That when he left for college there was some sort of tension between the two of you.

A: Yes. Billy killed his father. He hasn’t been the same since.

Q: That must be hard for you.

A: He is in a place right now where I can’t reach him.

Q: You mean emotionally?

A: Yes.

Q: I just want you to know that I think you’re a great mom. Billy is lucky to have you.

A: That’s kind of you to say. But there’s an open wound in this family.

Q: I can see that this is a painful subject. I think we can move to another. What do you make of the Blackout?

A: I hope they get it figured out. Winter’s coming. I donated my bison herd to help feed the town of Patriarch, as we haven’t seen a delivery truck in this county for several weeks.


Interview with Billy Erikson

Fall, 2010

Q: I see they’ve closed the campus.

A: Yes. They’re trying to send us home. But there’s no transportation.

Q: The fuel shortage?

A: Yes.

Q: When was the last time you talked to your mom?

A: A couple days before I left to come here.

Q: You miss her?

A: I guess.

Q: What are your plans?

A: I don’t know.

Q: I could help you get home.

A: That’s a kind offer, Mister, but I’ve got to do some things first.

Q: Like what?

A: I don’t know.

Q: If I can help you in any way . . . 

A: Thank you.

Billy stood up. He looked around the room. Then he shook my hand and left.


Questions from the

Discussion Guide

If we can look at being a parent, for the moment, as a spectrum of choices between sacrificing yourself for your children (Regan) on one end and sacrificing your children for your mission (Jack) on the other end, where is it you’d like to be on that spectrum?

Is Jack the good guy or the bad guy?

  • I offer my thoughts on this question here.

The way I see it, Rachel saved Regan’s life on that cliff’s edge. What is it she did? Why do you think he didn’t jump?

Billy killed his dad. Would you have pulled the trigger? How do you think one recovers from that?

Rachel survived a lot in order to learn to love herself, to offer grace and compassion to herself. What does her journey mean to you?

If you could take one of the characters in Patriarch Run out to lunch, who would it be?

The story is written from three points of view (Rachel’s, Billy’s, and Jack’s). All three characters are limited in their understanding of the events that take place. And all three of them have misconceptions about those events. That being said, the reader is aware of the big picture through all their perspectives. How does that structure enhance the tension of the narrative?