This involves a three-legged stool known as cataclysms, adaptability, and communication.
We live in a world of cataclysms, disasters, wars, and rumors of wars. Most of us are blissfully ignorant because we’ve never been personally touched by any such life-threatening events. But consider the headlines of just the past century or so.
In 1908, a meteor leveled a hundred square miles of Russian forest. In 2015, an asteroid just 65 feet wide exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, causing widespread damage, and seriously injuring 1500 people. Just 20 hours later an even bigger space rock just barely missed our planet. Astronomers were unable to spot either one of them. In fact, Earth floats in space in a virtual shooting gallery of asteroids, comets, and falling space junk and astronomers can’t see the vast majority of those incoming rocks and debris.
There’s a huge list of catastrophes which periodically threaten life on our planet. All of us remember the tsunami that killed a quarter-million people in Indonesia. Tsunamis are almost a way of life along the so-called Ring of Fire, the chain of shifting land plates and volcanoes that rim the Pacific Ocean.
Speaking of volcanoes, I used to live in Seattle where the most prominent geological feature was one of the biggest volcanoes in America. People in the Pacific Northwest are periodically warned to “prepare for the Big One.” They certainly weren’t well-prepared when Mt. St. Helens blew its top in 1980. Volcano science was still in its infancy. Of course, ‘The Big One’ in the Northwest refers to the fact that two tectonic plates a few dozen miles offshore are colliding, and one is sliding under the other. The fact that there hasn’t been much movement lately means the plates are stuck. When they break loose, people from Vancouver B.C. to Northern California will feel the punch, and a quake-caused tsunami is almost a certainty. Millions of people live in the potential path of destruction. But the ‘Big One’ that gets most of the attention is the series of faults that run from San Francisco into the Los Angeles area. The San Andreas fault will someday break causing a massive earthquake that will change daily life for millions of people. Every day brings it closer. It’s happened many times in the past and right now the underground stress continues to build.
Then, there’s Yellowstone, one of the largest of the world’s mega-volcanoes. When this 100-mile wide caldera erupts, it will dramatically change life in North America. Fifty years ago, we knew almost nothing about Yellowstone. Today, it’s one of the most-studied volcanoes in the world. Researchers say the news is not positive.
We’re learning more each year about disease epidemics: AIDS, Zika, Chikungunya, and many others. In the past century, alone, tens of millions of people have died in waves of various types of influenza. Our scientific knowledge is rapidly evolving, but the science story of the century is predicted to be emerging viruses. There are more such waves of disease coming.
Let’s get even more dramatic. Very few people can tell you what the ‘Carrington Event’ was all about. It was an outburst of plasma from the sun that took a direct hit on the Earth. The last one happened in 1859 and wiped out the world’s telegraph networks. Our electric grid was in its infancy, then, but astronomers say this kind of flare hits the planet about every century. We’re way overdue for a repeat, but we have never been so dependent upon our fragile electric grid. It’s how we get our water, our food, our gasoline, it governs how we communicate. Our entire electric grid is dependent on satellites that orbit our planet and they would be the first electric devices destroyed by such a flare. It’s estimated that when the U.S. power grid goes down it’ll take a minimum of five years to repair the damage. In 2003, fifty million people suffered through a blackout that hit the Northeast power grid. New Yorkers were terrified. They coped, but the outage only lasted about 18 hours. That blackout was caused by one small tree branch that fell on one seemingly insignificant power line, but the power grid was so fragile that one transformer after another was destroyed in a chain reaction that eventually covered almost all of the Northeast.
Natural events aren’t the only thing about which we should be wary. Ask the people of Venezuela, Greece, or Puerto Rico what happens when a dictatorial government mishandles its finances. In the ensuing social or natural disaster, grocery shelves were stripped within hours and the human suffering was almost beyond description.
But before you get too depressed, consider this: Those who adapt survive. Those who have the knowledge or gain new knowledge not only help their families survive, they’re also capable of saving neighbors and strangers. In a grid-down situation would you know how to purify water, and find and cook food? If you live in a coastal area would you know how to desalinate seawater? You don’t need to become a crazy prepper to build your own store of knowledge in how to adapt to emergencies.
Adaptability is evolutionary survival. Stories are frequently told about how the invention of automobiles in the late 1800s destroyed the buggy whip and the wagon industries. Those thousands of people who switched from building buggies to repairing cars survived and prospered.
Automobile travel was threatened by air travel in the 1940s and 50s because there was no paved highway system. In 1919, a young Army officer named Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized the problem of cross-country travel and led a sixty-three-day military convoy to scout a future cross-country highway. Later, as President, he signed the bill that created the Interstate Highway System, parts of which still bear his name. And the new highways have kept automobiles relevant.
Other changes have dramatically changed the way we all live.
Movie theaters were threatened by VCRs. VCRs were made obsolete by DVDs. Family farms have been swallowed by factory farms. Canning your own fruit and vegetables is almost a lost art. Books and encyclopedias have surrendered to Google and Wiki. Universities and language schools are being made obsolete by language lessons on YouTube.
Computers have made typewriters extinct. Actually, in a computer emergency a few weeks ago, I searched my crowded basement for an old WWII era typewriter I had once stuffed into an old Army footlocker. Perhaps to amuse myself (and some of my editors) this entire Epilogue was typed by hand. I did try, at one point, to locate any outlet in the Rocky Mountain region that still sold typewriter ribbons. None did. I barely survived by continually moistening my dried up ink ribbon. Don’t try to teach typewriter use to kids of today, though. They’ll think grandpa needs to be institutionalized as they hunt for the Escape, Ctrl, and Function keys.
That brings up the third leg of the stool in this post: Communication. The Internet has taught people all over the world how to communicate. It’s turned us all into journalists. But the true art of journalism has nothing to do with learning how it’s about learning what to communicate. It’s a mistake most beginning journalists make. They learn how…they don’t learn what. Which puts you, my Dear Reader, in a unique position. The more knowledge you gain, the more you learn what knowledge to impart to others, the closer you get to becoming the neighborhood expert, the person everyone turns to for advice. That’s true journalism.
That’s riding the elephant.