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Our Fragile Grip on Civilization

I was lucky, relatively. There was no damage to my home, save for one pine tree that clipped a neighbor's house, and no flooding. But Hurricane Sandy took my power and Internet access, both of which I don't expect to have restored anytime soon. Where I live, there was a lot of damage.

I'm using car power to revive my cell phone -- my one device that remains connected to the outside markets and the rest of the world -- and have been tethering that, in small intervals, to my laptop in order to pen this short piece and send it in to you. All of this reminds me of how tenuous our hold is on civilization, and how close we come to the edge of inhumanity when our creature comforts are removed.

You may have noticed that this piece isn't really about the oil markets, or any market at all. The time for that will come again, and I hope it will be soon. Instead, today I'm taking a step back, even if it is a step forced by a natural disaster, to look at the simple and necessary systems upon which we all depend in order to remain -- and I use this word specifically -- civilized.

In Hoboken, N.J., and other low-lying areas around New York City, not only are electricity and gas out of service, but roads are still full of seawater polluted by flooded sewage-treatment centers near the shoreline. In residential areas on the southern coast of New Jersey, the combination of downed trees and surge flooding have slowed the rescue of stranded homeowners, never mind the possibility of restoration of service. Neighborhoods have caught fire from broken gas mains, stranded by water from fire teams.

In New York, all seven subway tunnels that connect the outer boroughs to Manhattan are filled with water, as are the Queens Midtown Tunnel and the Hugh Carey Tunnel (formerly the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel). While pumps are working to empty them, these devices were designed to move excess rainwater -- not millions of gallons of seawater -- and they were installed in the 1950s.

New York, and the surrounding areas, won't get back to normal for a long time.

Will civilization survive here? This question sounds hyperbolic, I suppose, and maybe it's not a true concern. One expects our local, state and federal government will react quickly enough to save us from sinking into chaos. Still, it's worthwhile, perhaps even critical, to take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to think about the thin lines that separate us from the dark ages.

Jose Saramago's Blindness is a brilliant novel describing the "experiment" of lost basic services and the tenuous nature of civilization. Reading this book would be a fantastic way to spend the next several days of spare time if you are in the same position as I am, waiting for the lights to come back on. It would be an especially good read if you're not waiting -- if your heat and toilets are working, if your televisions and computers are operating and you're wondering what it's like on the other side.