THERE'S MUCH to learn from the massive failure that knocked out power to tens of millions of people in eight states and Canada on Thursday. It marked the fourth time since the mid-1960s that a major breakdown of the electrical system left millions powerless, in both senses of the word.
Ironically, the interstate electric power grid was originally created with the promise of making blackouts a thing of the past. By linking local power systems, a failure in one could be made up by the rest, ensuring that no one would be without electricity.
In November 1965, when one part of the system failed, the increased strain put on the rest caused other components to fail, further increasing the strain on those still operating. More failures led to more failures in a snowball effect that brought the whole system down, blacking out the entire Northeast.
Changes were made, more safety systems were added and we were told it couldn't happen again. Then, in 1977, it did.
This time, some 9 million people around New York City lost power, triggering a spree of arson and looting that caused up to $1 billion in property damage.
More changes, more assurances that the problem had been fixed. Then, in August 1996, this time in the western United States, 4 million customers in nine states lost power.
And now we have the Great Blackout of 2003, the worst in American history.
Lesson No. 1: It is impossible to completely eliminate catastrophic failure in complex technological systems. No technological system ever designed, from the wheel to the space shuttle, is immune to failure as a result of technical flaws, human error or deliberate sabotage. Unfortunately, this is as true for technologies whose failure is dangerous enough to kill tens or even hundreds of thousands (such as nuclear power plants, highly toxic chemical facilities and weapons of mass destruction) as it is for the interstate electricity grid.
Last week's blackout is yet another warning that we humans are simply too prone to error and malevolence to continue to live with these most dangerous technologies without eventually triggering catastrophe. If we cannot live with them, we must find ways to live without them. We will all be more secure when we do.
These days, when the power system fails, it isn't just a matter of having to read by candlelight. When the lights went out Thursday, so did the water supply in Cleveland and Detroit, air conditioners, elevators in high-rise buildings, traffic lights, ATM machines, mass transit systems, gas pumps, many telephones, countless computer-related systems and so on.
Because we have come to rely so heavily on a continuing flow of electricity, our dependence on centralized, interconnected power systems has made us unduly vulnerable to its breakdown - this time apparently caused by a technical problem, next time perhaps by a deliberate act of criminal or terrorist sabotage.
Lesson No. 2: Modern society is increasingly at risk of disruption, especially when we choose technologies that make us heavily dependent on centralized systems.
Electricity is not the problem. There are many alternative ways of producing electricity that are much less centralized than our present system of large fossil-fuel generating plants and nuclear power reactors.
Many decades ago, the rural South was electrified with wind power. Although some have cooked up schemes to generate electricity with huge, centralized fields of solar collectors, one advantage of solar power is that it is naturally distributed widely.
Solar arrays on individual buildings are a much better idea. If we moved toward using a variety of renewable energy sources in a diversified mix, we could get off the centralized power grid.
We have spent many billions of dollars subsidizing fossil fuels and nuclear power. Leveling the playing field by eliminating those subsidies, or transferring some of them to renewable energy, would greatly encourage the further development and deployment of ecologically benign energy sources.
In my book 26 years ago, The Conservation Response, I analyzed many small changes in the way we design and operate energy-using systems that combined would save 30 percent to 50 percent of the energy Americans use without reducing the standard of living.
Taking practical energy conservation measures, together with step-by-step moves toward greater use of renewable energy, would make us all more secure. We would be much less vulnerable both to massive technical failures and to reliance on oil from politically unstable areas of the world that repeatedly draw us into costly - and dangerous - adventures.
Lloyd J. Dumas is professor of political economy at the University of Texas, Dallas and author of Lethal Arrogance: Human Fallibility and Dangerous Technologies.