Radio Ecoshock Show November 5, 2010



There is optimism - and then there's the facts.  Welcome to Radio Ecoshock.  We have a triple-header for you this week. 


The Watchman is going to rattle out danger - with a brain wave escape hatch - as I interview California author Rebecca Costa.


Transportation planner Jeff Tumlin gives a short, stark warning speech about how cars make us fat, sick, and dead.  Good commuting fare.


We'll wrap up with happy bad news for the inner Doomster - NASA's new project to blackout your city, before the next Solar Storm starts The Long Emergency.  Could it be the knock-out blow?


I don't mind if the future is scared and miserable.  I just want my toilet to keep on working - and now the Sun wants to screw with my plumbing!  Do you think I'm crazy?  Keep listening.





Thanks to a listener tip, I connected with Rebecca Costa.  We talked about her new book "The Watchman's Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction"


The book accepts the possibility, voiced by many scientists, that we may be create the Sixth Great Extinction event, here on Earth.  It's a whole mix of things, from climate change, through hacking down forests and swamps, to poisoning air, land and water.


But as you'll hear in this interview, Costa cares less about the cause of the impending crash, than the patterns and predictions of it. 


Rebecca started out as a biologist, and then sociobiologist - inspired by the great guru of biodiversity, Edward O. Wilson.  But she got sidetracked - in a big way! - by new technology boiling out of California's Silicon Valley.  Check out this quote from her bio:


"...she was instrumental in introducing new technologies for General Electric, Oracle, Apple Computer, 3M and other pioneers, Costa is the first thought-leader to confront the ways in which the rapid pace of change, in every aspect of our lives, has outstripped our brain’s ability to cope."


A successful businesswoman, she was CEO of Dazai Advertising, Inc., which was sold to J. Walter Thompson in 1997.  And Costa still has the connections.  Even Donald Trump has a blurb recommending her book.


This bright light and uber-connector then unplugged a bit, spending at least 5 years delving into why former civilizations collapsed.  The Romans, The Mayans, and more.  But this isn't a copy of Diamond Jared or others.  Costa came up with her own conclusions, and an idea of how we could avoid the same fate.


The book has some of that "new thought" vibe, and occasionally I'm afraid it's going to turn into a self-help book that Oprah will recommend (not that there's anything wrong with that...) 


But if you listen to the Radio Ecoshock interview, and another recorded at the Harvard Coop - with E.O. Wilson himself in the chair beside Rebecca, you'll realize this is a unique and important voice.


In the end, Rebecca suggests that humans have another way of thinking - something that neurobiologists can now see in live brain scans.  Actually, it's a very old way of thinking that we have down-played or lost, due to our over-complex world.  This kind of insight, rising above normal thinking, may help us to solve seemingly impossible problems, she says.


I have my doubts, and I tell her that.  She invites us all to dig in for ourselves, to check the facts.


And yet I know what she means.  So many times, when my poor brain can't find a way, something comes to, something that seems greater than any capability I have.  Inspiration.


Find out more at


This interview seems a good start for my new obsession with the impacts of complexity on our own lives, and the life of the planet.  The next interview follows up very well with something Rebecca raises in our chat.  Namely, some businesses are now offering employees standing desks, with slow treadmills below them.  You can walk while you work, instead of sitting all the time.  New science shows that the brain evolved to handle motion, and keeps stimulated when we use those muscles.


That is exactly what transportation guru Jeff Tumlin told a conference in Vancouver, at the Gaining Ground Summit October 7th, 2010.  I was there to record for Radio Ecoshock. 


Jeff also raises the reality that slower life is better for our sanity.  A point we may take up again in a future show, discussing the 1970's writer Ivan Ilich.....


Last year I got some great recordings at the Resilient Cities conference in Vancouver, Canada.  You heard people like Richard Register, and Sam Adams the Mayor of Green Portland.  Find all that on our "Cities" page, of the Audio-on-Demand menu at



This year, the Gaining Ground organizers were attuned to the troubles, and called this day's session "Healing Cities".  I'm going to play you one of the best short speeches. 


Jeff Tumlin is an award-winning transportation designer, Stanford grad, and, as you'll hear a fearless speaker about everything we don't want to hear.  Find out how cars make us fat, stupid, and dead.  The introduction is by Rob Abbott, Founder and CEO, Abbott Strategies.


The Tumlin speech is funny, with surprising facts the General Motors didn't tell you...


That speech titled "Alive Transportation: Fitness, Safety, Community, and Trust" was by Jeff Tumlin, A Principal at Nelson/Nygaard Transportation Planning, in San Francisco.  It was recorded by Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock, on October 7th, 2010 at the Gaining Ground "Ecological" conference, in Vancouver, Canada.




Doomsters rejoice!  I've found another reason to stock up with food, and emergency supplies!  The bad news comes from those fringe nuts at.... NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


In late October, NASA announced a new project,  trying to protect our electrical grid from violent solar storms.  It's called "Solar Shield".  The good news: NASA thinks they might be able to help prevent long-term damage to the electric system.  The bad news, it isn't working yet, and might not prevent a serious hit.


How serious?


This is where I love reading U.S. government reports, that never make the mainstream news.  The NASA headline is so catchy.  Quote: "Did you know a solar flare can make your toilet stop working?"  Well, that would be really bad.  I don't want the Sun to screw up my toilet.


It gets worse.


It turns out NASA paid for a study by the National Academy of Sciences.  That came out in January 2009, titled "Severe Space Weather Events - Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts".


Buried in those 132 pages, is hair-raising stuff.  One hundred and thirty million Americans could loose power, for months, or longer, from an event they don't know anything about.  When it comes to a big hit, Al Queda is nothing, compared to the Sun.



Just think about what a prolonged world-wide blackout means.  The National Academy did, and it's ugly.  They have charts showing how various layers of society stop functioning.  Things like satellites, bank machines, gas pumps, television and radio stations, cash registers, furnaces or air-conditioners - and, oh yeah, the pumps that deliver water to your taps, and your toilet.


All that could go down for several months, the experts say.  I question whether the whole grid, or the economy, could ever return again, following such an event.


As you consider how many buckets of beans you will need to put away, let's get some background.  What is this about?


Science writer Dr. Tony Phillips has a couple of great articles about this whole issue, on the NASA web site.  I'll be drawing from his work - and you can find links to it in my Ecoshock blog for this program - at  You'll also hear a couple of quick clips from a 2006 Discovery Channel disaster special "The Perfect Disaster - Solar Storm".


The existence of solar storms is not a new discovery.  Back in 1859, British astronomer Richard Carrington happened to be projecting the Sun's image on a white screen.  He saw a giant eruption from the surface of our Star.  About 24 hours later, telegraph lines became electrified.  Some operators were shocked, and papers in telegraph offices caught fire.


Dr. Phillips says the bright night light could be seen from Hawaii to the East Coast.  In the Rocky Mountains, campers started to make breakfast in the night, thinking the strange glow was morning.  It was called the Carrington Event.  Remember that, because it was probably 50% stronger than the solar storm that hit the Earth in May of 1921.


A co-author of the National Academy report, John Kappenmann of Metatech Corporation, calculated the probable damage today, if a 1921-size super storm hit us today.  He found two big areas of "probable power system collapse": the Pacific Northwest, and the whole East Coast of the United States, extending to the Midwest, like Ohio and Michigan.


"Power system collapse" is not what you want to hear.  The story goes like this. 


We have enlarged our power system by about ten times since the 1950's.  The U.S. has a gigantic network of power lines, as do many modernized nations on Earth.  These grids act like antennae, attracting the electricity from the solar storm.  The more power lines, the denser they are, the more likely they will be hit.


It isn't just a matter of knocking out electricity for a few hours.  The burst of energy goes for the heavy transformers at the core of our system.  These monster transformers, with all their copper windings and iron, just melt into useless metal, when they get hit.  I've seen a photo of a big transformer at an American nuclear plant, melted.


Nobody can repair them on site.  New ones have to be manufactured, transported and installed.  They are big and expensive.  Many are custom built.  It could take months, or years to replace them, if we have enough materials at all.  And that would have to happen during a giant black out, and the likely social collapse.


Our current world production capacity for such large transformers is from 70 to 100 per year.  Tens of thousands of transformers world-wide are at risk.  You do the math.


A much smaller flare hit the electrical system in Canada's Quebec province in 1989.   A satellite photo shows that whole part of Canada in utter darkness.  But the hit was small.  They recovered in about 9 hours.


But a Carrington Event, as happened in 1859?  Kappenmann calculated about 350 big transformers would be killed in the United States alone.  That would leave around 130 million people without electricity, likely for months.  With, quote, "water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, fuel re-supply and so on."


To quote a bit from NASA writer Tony Phillips:


"A contemporary repetition of the Carrington Event would cause … extensive social and economic disruptions," the report warns. Power outages would be accompanied by radio blackouts and satellite malfunctions; telecommunications, GPS navigation, banking and finance, and transportation would all be affected. Some problems would correct themselves with the fading of the storm: radio and GPS transmissions could come back online fairly quickly. Other problems would be lasting: a burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, can take weeks or months to repair. The total economic impact in the first year alone could reach $2 trillion, some 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina or, to use a timelier example, a few TARPs."


And that's just America.  The rest of the world could be plunged into darkness as well.


Hmmm.  On the NASA site we have a diagram that represents the web of complexity, hidden from our view.  The caption reads: "A web of interdependencies makes the modern economy especially sensitive to solar storms. Source: Dept. of Homeland Security."


Experts see arrows of ricocheting damage run from the power system, to emergency services, all government functions, from the military to those welfare checks, pensions, payments to workers.  On the other side, threatened or going down is the whole banking, and financial system.  No lights, no money, no gas, no phone, no water.


For 130 million Americans, possibly for months.  The whole world could go into turmoil, with some cities temporarily abandoned, without food or power.


The Sun has just gone though a decade-long quiet period, with hardly any of the "sunspots" that mark solar storms.  Here on Earth, we had less of the Northern Lights, and the Southern Lights, the impressive colored reflections of solar emissions, passing through the upper atmosphere.


We don't really know when solar storms will happen.  One NASA expert predicts the next storm could hit as soon as 2013.  There is already a growing Net literature and mythology growing around that year.


Mind you, people in both Europe and North America saw a wild aurora borealis light up the night sky on August 3, 2010.  Here is  a link to a flikr video, from NASA, of those violent late Summer bursts of solar activity this year - vast explosions, followed by tentacles of red hot light, reaching far out in space.


When these energies pass the Earth, they disturb, distort, and weaken our planet's magnetic field - the same force that points a compass.  Normally, this magnetosphere protects Earth from harmful solar emissions.


NASA has learned fairly recently the magnetosphere can be porous.  At times It opens up windows which allow extra solar activity to reach the Earth.  These may open from minutes to hours, we are not sure yet.


But a big solar flare, a Carrington Event, doesn't need a window.  It crashes right though the walls.


I feel unqualified to speak about the actual science, of what happens near the ground where we live, during one of those events.  I may look for a guest to explain this further.


My crippled understanding is that energy is also drawn from the Earth, just as lightening sometimes emerges from the ground.  This energy, not as much a rebound effect, as an attraction event, is attracted to power lines and transformers, just as sky lightening goes to Church steeples or the tallest tree.  I may be wrong.


But the NASA experts certainly say this: the more power connections we make, especially large scale applications, with giant power hubs for our cities, the more likely these systems will be hit and destroyed by a solar storm.  More irony, in a universe full of irony.


We expect natural disasters to hit the least developed areas - like Haiti, or Bangladesh.  This one, which Discovery Channel calls "The Perfect Disaster Solar Storm" - goes for the biggest cities, with the biggest power grids.   "Perfect Disaster" was a 2006 TV episode.  The show predicts the next period of extreme solar events should arrive in 2011.  Nobody knows for sure.


It might never happen in our lifetime.  Solar storm disaster has been done to death in many science fiction novels, and some bad movies.  Is it just disaster porn?


Why is NASA announcing this "Solar Shield" Project?  They have the SoHo satellite to photograph the Sun's surface, to monitor for a CME - the dreaded Coronal Mass Ejection that brightened the world in 1859.  Another aging NASA satellite, the ACE, is being set up to measure the solar storm as it goes by, allowing computers to model where the worst impacts will be.  All this might give American ground controllers 20 to 30 minutes - we are not sure how long - to shut down the power grid, and isolate transformers.  To make our cities go dark, on purpose.


Just now, the major power companies are not yet all on board.  The decision to shut down American cities would not be easy.  Could it all happen in time, if the Solar Shield Project goes ahead?


Don't forget, a solar storm is a global event.  Every major city could go dark, and stay that way.  Developing countries could take a decade or more to power back up, as world transformer production goes to the highest bidder, or to military might.


Satellites, carrying the entire global communication and financial system, may be struck dead.


None of this is science fiction.  It is science -  reality on a small planet near an irregular Sun.


It's just one more way our over-complex civilization could crash.  Just one more reason why I have a year's worth of food stored away.  Why I live near a river.  Why I question any future that cannot accomplish localization, solar on every house, decentralization, simplification, frugality, self-sufficiency.


Roberto Vacca called the crash of complexity "The Coming Dark Age."  He was wrong then.  Now the book is online, and updated in the year 2000.  Vacca is waiting.


Can we prove him wrong?


On Radio Ecoshock, we'll continue the exploration of complexity, and our utter dependence on fossil power, from past ages.  Can we save the climate, without a giant economic crash?  Without a tech blackout, or a population crash?  Without a time of horror?


Are we living in a deadly fantasy?  Some trust the nightmare will turn into a benign dream after all.


Others fear to wake up.


I'm Alex Smith. 



The nearly end music, for our space and complexity theme, is the old song "Telstar"... but I can't go through with playing the whole thing.  It seems boring now.


That's as much of "Telstar" as I can stand.  The excitement when that instrumental by the British band, the Tornados, was huge in 1962.  People were caught up in the new space age, and this song was named after one of the early commercial communications satellite, "Telstar" owned by AT&T.


The clavioline instrumental was also new to popular music.  Maybe it was the ancestor of those great techno bands coming out of European clubs in the 80's.


The other odd noises you heard came from a project I believe was called Kosmos, with "K".  Now I've lost track of who did it.  Some scientists found rhythms in the waves coming from various distant Stars.  They hooked up synthesizers - and let the Stars right their own music, according to the frequency received.  If you know who did it, please drop me an email.  Radio [at] 


The music of the universe, indeed.


Many thanks to Radio Ecoshock listeners for their guest suggestions.  Caleb in New England pointed me to Rebecca who he'd just heard at Harvard Coop.  And Guy in Australia, next week I'll be talking with Julian Cribb about the coming global famine, for an upcoming show.  Keep your tips coming boys and girls, as Radio Ecoshock sets out to rule the world.


(Pinky and Brain clip)


And welcome to our 23rd station, to all you Canucks listening on CJUM college radio, in Winnipeg, Canada.  I notice Radio Ecoshock is also on RadioTime.


We're all in for a wild and bumpy ride.


We close out with a global warming song by FLEP.  The Family Life Education Pasefika is a health organization based in Auckland, New Zealand.  This is a live random recording from their 2009 crew, found on You tube.  Pacific Islanders have everything to lose, as the oceans rise.