Friday, 27 September 2013

Review of 'Blackout'

I recently watched Channel 4's drama 'Blackout', which I was tipped off about by a post by Jason Heppenstall on 22 Billion Energy Slaves. It is about Britain facing a week-long, nationwide power cut and how different people react to the impending shortages. The BBC aired a similarly themed programme in 2004 called 'If The Lights Go Out', which is also worth a watch (see end of post). It has more interviews with experts and less 'dramatisation' than Blackout. With Blackout I was left wondering if they had started with all the images of looting from 2011, and thought how can we knit this into a plot.

The prospect of facing blackouts in the UK is very real, as mentioned previously. I like to follow Mike Pepler's blog Peak Oil Update for a good summary of the situation in the UK - in short expect high prices and energy shortages. A power cut that encompasses the whole country for a week is a severe situation and beyond our current experience though. We have been rather lulled into a false sense of security over the past few decades, because power cuts haven't been particularly common or widespread, with the main cause being severe weather damage, although strikes have led to shortages in the past. At the same time our dependence on electricity has grown. Central heating systems are electrically controlled, wages are paid electronically, and communication is via mobiles and email which rely on power sources for the individual units and the networks. We used to just have a landline phone and the postman. Imagine that ;-)

It is the fear of violence, which switches most people off dealing with the possibility of prolonged power cuts. Whereas many aspects of power cuts could be prepared for at an individual and community level, the media projections of mass looting and rioting help to paralyse us.

Violence, especially random, anger-fuelled violence, is scary for me too. So a few years back I carried out some research. I'm no expert, but I read enough from different sources to convince me that people become more friendly and community-minded during a disaster, and looting is far less prevalent than you think. I researched Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath, which was an event that was still very fresh in my mind. To recap, in 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast of the US, devastating the area, and damaging the New Orleans flood defences. Of the 1.3 million population, it is thought that 80% evacuated, but many without transport were unable to leave the city. After the hurricane, residents of New Orleans that hadn't been evacuated were left for almost a week with no power, fresh water, food supplies or emergency assistance, whilst 80% of the city was still flooded.

I remember watching all the news reports along with the rest of the world, in utter disbelief that no one was going to help these people. Such was the concern around the world that aid was offered from countries such as Bangledesh, India, Venezuela and Russia, because no one wanted to see the continued suffering. (The UK offered emergency food rations, which were turned down by the US government because of concern about Mad Cow Disease.)

There is plenty of information about Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath, which is well worth a read, and shows the catalogue of failures. But when help arrived it was in the form of heavily armed military who were expecting to be having gun battles with hoards of looters and violent criminals. What they found were desperate people who didn't know what to do or where to get help, let alone be able to organise a violent protest. They were far more concerned with surviving and, as many of the stories show, helping others.

As for the looting, well there is a vast difference with looting to plunder and steal valuable luxury goods, like the scenes depicted in Blackout, and taking items necessary for survival such as bottled water, food and medicines. If you will die without water and no one is there to help you, then you would do what is necessary to survive. This isn't looting, this is survival, as the report 'Disaster Realities in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: Revisiting the Looting Myth', by the Disaster Research Centre at the University of Delaware explains.

"Appropriating behavior involves a person taking property owned by another to use it for emergency purposes and, depending upon the item, with the intent of returning it at a later date. There were many reports of both looting and appropriating behavior occurring following the storm."

However they did not find the evidence of widespread looting that the media portrayed. The number of arrests for looting was still far less, than the average number of arrests for crime in a normal day. If there is a criminal element in society, then they may see an opportunity during disasters, but that doesn't add up to widespread looting. There were far more accounts noted of 'pro-social' behaviour, that is people trying to help others for no reward. It is distressing to see people in such a dire situation and the majority of people, anywhere in the world, respond by helping in any way they can.

Blackout, which is just depicting a severe power cut - no floods, storms, or immediate loss of life - appears to be over-exaggerating the public reaction in it's dramatisation, by comparison. Interestingly last week the spin doctor of former prime minister Gordon Brown was quoted as saying in an extract from his book, that when the extent of the financial crisis in 2008 became clear, Gordon Brown was discussing deployment of troops on streets to prevent panic. The events in Blackout, would have clearly provoked such a deployment very early on, but this was not scripted in.

How long would it be before people really started running out of water and food? I think it would take far longer than is portrayed in Blackout. As soon as it is known that the power cut could potentially last more than a day or two, local councils can start public announcements, reminding people to stay at home, fill their bath tub with water, and check on their neighbours. I would guess that most people would have food to last a week. They may run out of fresh milk and bread, but pasta and tinned beans are in the back of most people's cupboards. Sanitation may become more of a problem, but if you have a garden then there is the option to dig a pit.

Blackout seemed to miss out that without mobiles and internet, people will still want to know what's going on, and the first thing most people would do is go out into the street and start talking to neighbours or passersby about the situation. People get advised to stay home in a powercut, so why wouldn't they? There may be gridlock on the roads initially, but people will soon stop travelling to work or shops if they are closed or empty.

"Based on expert advice and meticulous research, Blackout combines real user-generated footage, alongside fictional scenes, CCTV archive and news reports to build a terrifyingly realistic account of Britain being plunged into darkness." is how Channel 4 describe Blackout.

Terrifying yes., or at least only in some aspects. For instance it is only 3 hours drive from London to Sheffield and you could walk it in 53 hours according to google maps, but in Blackout they drove, and walked, and drove again for 7 days to get there. Why would all the motorways be clogged in a power cut? Motorways don't rely on traffic lights, and have a hard shoulder to pull in on, so without a mass exodus or evacuation, they should become empty within a day or two. There was little sign of community spirit and pro-social behaviour, other than an offer of a lift, a neighbour taking in some elderly neighbours in her high rise, and a ruluctant sharing of a barbeque to cook food. The 'survivalist' character lived with his family in isolation, no siblings or friends arrived to share the benefits of the diesel generator and he had no concern about what was going on outside his four walls. Had he knocked on his neighbours door and said our food has been stolen, he may have been given a few tins of something, or could even have bartered some of his petrol for a meal.

The characters in this dramatisation showed no ingenuity at all, and community spirit was thin on the ground. We live in a society where there are thousands of volunteers - people who do something useful for society for no financial reward. The evidence shows we are a generous nation when it comes to giving to charity to help people worse off than ourselves. Blackout seems so far from my experiences of people and human nature, that I wonder about the 'expert advice and meticulous research' that it is supposed to be based on.

Blackout is realistic that after a power cut you need cash to buy what is available from the shops that remain open, as card machines won't be working and banks would be closed. Shops may initially be very busy with people trying to hoard essentials like bottled water, batteries, candles and food. It is realistic that filling stations will be closed as they cannot pump fuel.  Mobile phone networks may be overloaded and only have backup power for a few days, but Blackout has missed the role of radios and landlines. Also, there was no suggestion of emergency shelters being setup, even though this is a common occurence after disasters have hit.

Can you see where personal preparation fits in to this? Just keeping some cash in the house for emergencies is beneficial. A bottle of unscented bleach means that you can sterilise water with just a couple of drops. A few candles and matches or torches and batteries to provide emergency lighting most householders would have available, just as a barbeque or camping stove to heat food is fairly common. A shovel to dig a pit or sturdy strong bin bags are not expensive items to have and a wind-up radio is also useful. Increasing your stored food and essential medicines, is not too much to ask, is it?

How far you want to take preparedness is down to what you personally feel the risks are. If you see a powercut as a set of challenges that we could be better prepared for, rather than the scary, collapse depicted in Blackout, then it's possible to overcome the paralysis and think through solutions to situations. Although I disagree with it's claim to be realistic, I am grateful for programmes like Blackout, for being thought-provoking, for reminding us of the risks and for keeping us on our toes :)


  1. Remember when Hurricane Sandy hit New York, and the media was full of photos of those who had power leaving out power boards with signs offering free power for charging up phones? That's what people are really like in emergencies.
    Every year I get a little more prepared for an emergency, because there seem to be so many extreme weather events these days, but then I find that the preparedness helps in every day domestic emergencies. Keeping water, museli bars, first aid kit, umbrellas, pocket knife and a rug in the car has been useful so many times in the last couple of years.
    Extra cash and toilet paper at home? When WON'T that come in handy?
    We always keep an extra gas bottle for the BBQ, which has saved neighbourhood barbies so often, so really, I think just generally being prepared makes life so much easier, let alone surviving emergencies.
    I love that we have an open fire that we could use to keep us warm if the power fails, and our next project is a rainwater tank.

    1. Jo, you seem well prepared and have clearly thought about what you need to have at the ready.

      In Britain we don't really get much in the way of extreme weather events, so I feel like people aren't really prepared for emergencies. Rolling blackouts seem a more likely possibility, which gives people a bit of warning and time to prepare.