According to a new study, if a solar storm blew out most of America’s electric grid, it would cost us $41.5 billion dollars. The worst scenario calculated in the study would affect 66 per cent of the population, as well as the nation’s manufacturing, government and finance sectors. Other countries would be affected as well, but we don’t care about that, the study simply created a seven-billion-dollar chump-change jar for the foreigners. After putting a price tag on every imaginable aspect of Apocalypse Now, one of the study’s authors said somberly, “We felt it was important.” He found it “surprising” that prior studies — yes, there are prior studies making the same calculations — lacked “transparency” and missed entirely some direct and indirect costs.
Encyclopedic as it may be, and transparent as well — you can see right through it — the study raises at least as many questions as it answers [Please disengage your fake-news sensor and engage your irony alert]:
- now that we know what the incineration of the grid will cost, can we just not do it? Is that why you told us?
- now that we know what it will cost, shall we just put that much money in a savings account, so that when it happens, we can just write a check and we won’t be affected at all?
- Utilities have always known about the threat from severe solar storms, and how to protect the grid from them, but have so far refused to spend the money. So now can we get them to spend up to $40 billion? At least?
- Isn’t this pretty much the same things as commissioning a financial analysis to calculate how much money you will not make in the 10 years after your death? (A million dollars? Holy crap! Now I really don’t want to die!)
But here’s the real question. Have we as a culture become so devoid of human values and empathy that we no longer even have the language to discuss the meaning of anything without assigning cash values? Where are the studies concluding that an event like this would put us all instantly back in the Stone Age, that most of us would die in the first year, that our civilization might never recover?
In our world, knowledge has been industrialized. Armies of researchers often funded by the companies that will benefit from a right conclusion, delve into everything from the health benefits of food to the effects of chemicals, from evaluating stocks and bonds to the economic cost of homophobia. If the conclusion is wrong — that is, of no benefit to the sponsors — it can be buried, and alternate studies funded. See “Exxon and climate-change research.”
Rice University researchers have calculated the cost of carbon emissions, and called for a compensatory carbon tax. In other words, never mind the visible pall of pollution, the coughing children, the elevated cancer rates, the increasingly obvious destabilization of the planet’s climate, let’s figure out how many dollars it might cost and impose a fine, in dollars. Similarly, Stanford researchers have estimated the high cost of global climate change. Duh!
As with all crimes against humanity, we must first ask cui bono? Who benefits? Studies cost money, often big money. Promoting their results to a gullible public costs really big money. Somebody is getting something for all that money. [Note to self: Apply for grant to conduct large-scale study of the cost of studying the cost of things.]
Without conducting a study, I can only surmise that the beneficiaries of studies such as the solar-storm accounting are the very industries it studied. If we focused in detail on the human cost of such a Black Swan event — that is, an event of extremely low probability but extremely high cost — and the relative ease with which the industries could prevent it, we would be storming their gates. Or at least trolling them on Twitter.
But put a price tag on it, any price tag, and our tendency is to think, “Yeah, we could do that.” It doesn’t matter how big it is. Personally, I cannot get my head around any number that has more than six digits. I thought it was a private affliction, but it turns out to be pretty widespread.
Talk to any industry about its responsibility to the humans it is supposed to be serving, and to future generations of them, and it goes into a defensive crouch and insists that a corporation is not a person when it comes to ethics and responsibility. But threaten them with a future fine or cost, and the board meets, and says “Yeah, we could do that.”
So that’s cui bono, baby.