Could you describe the perfect future city?

It would look the way it looks today – diverse and lively. Exuding the promise of a new and better life. The ideal city, however, does not exist – could not exist – considering the wealth of factors in play: culture, history, geography, etc. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Your novel Blackout – Morgen ist es zu spät (Blackout – tomorrow it will be too late) highlights the effects of a large-scale power blackout. What made you pick this particular topic?

My actual intent was not to write about a blackout, but to throw a spotlight on the world’s interconnectedness and our systems’ mutual interdependencies.

I was looking for a suitable thriller plot and considered electricity when I read a feature on electric toothbrush production. If you wanted to harm a company – how could or would you attack? The production chain of a globalized company offers many potential points of attack. At the same time, these vulnerabilities only opened up due to all the restructuring we have seen over the past two or three decades. And a closer look at critical infrastructures will invariably lead you to question the security of our energy supply. After all, it is about the restructuring of society and its organization: In modern society, a cow barn and a hospital are run exactly the same way as a car factory.

Marc Elsberg at TEDx Berlin 2013 - Copyright: TEDxBerlin/S.Gabsch
Marc Elsberg at TEDx Berlin 2013 – Copyright: TEDxBerlin/S.Gabsch

What does this mean or entail for a city like Berlin?

The central fuel reserve of the city’s largest local supplier has a replacement period of 24 hours. This means: If deliveries grind to a halt, there is nothing left after 24 hours! Berlin could no longer be supplied. We are no longer aware of all these mechanisms – or maybe never were – because they developed outside of our own sphere of perception. With my book, I wanted to demonstrate this interconnectedness.

What kind of countermeasures can we take?

In my opinion, that’s not what this is all about. The other side of the coin reveals that at no time in history have this many people lived such long and pleasant lives in such comfort and health. In Western civilization, at least, most people enjoy better lives than any emperor a century ago! So, it’s only natural that we don’t want to relinquish those creature comforts, and why should we have to?

At the same time, we need to find ways to tackle these changed conditions. And that’s only possible when you actually know that they exist. That’s something too few people have focused on to date. Essentially, there are no concrete concepts in place on how to deal with a breakdown of these infrastructures.

photo by johoelken/ photocase.de
photo by johoelken/ photocase.de
Could you describe the perfect future city? It would look the way it looks today – diverse and lively. Exuding the promise of a new and better life. The ideal city, however, does not exist – could not exist – considering the wealth of factors in play: culture, history, geography, etc. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Your novel Blackout – Morgen ist es zu spät (Blackout – tomorrow it will be too late) highlights the effects of a large-scale power blackout. What made you pick this particular topic? My actual intent was not to write about a blackout, but to throw a spotlight on the world’s interconnectedness and our systems’ mutual interdependencies. I was looking for a suitable thriller plot and considered electricity when I read a feature on electric toothbrush production. If you wanted to harm a company – how could or would you attack? The production chain of a globalized company offers many potential points of attack. At the same time, these vulnerabilities only opened up due to all the restructuring we have seen over the past two or three decades. And a closer look at critical infrastructures will invariably lead you to question the security of our energy supply. After all, it is about the restructuring of society and its organization: In modern society, a cow barn and a hospital are run exactly the same way as a car factory. [caption id="attachment_17901" align="alignnone" width="768"]Marc Elsberg at TEDx Berlin 2013 - Copyright: TEDxBerlin/S.Gabsch Marc Elsberg at TEDx Berlin 2013 – Copyright: TEDxBerlin/S.Gabsch[/caption] What does this mean or entail for a city like Berlin? The central fuel reserve of the city’s largest local supplier has a replacement period of 24 hours. This means: If deliveries grind to a halt, there is nothing left after 24 hours! Berlin could no longer be supplied. We are no longer aware of all these mechanisms – or maybe never were – because they developed outside of our own sphere of perception. With my book, I wanted to demonstrate this interconnectedness. What kind of countermeasures can we take? In my opinion, that’s not what this is all about. The other side of the coin reveals that at no time in history have this many people lived such long and pleasant lives in such comfort and health. In Western civilization, at least, most people enjoy better lives than any emperor a century ago! So, it’s only natural that we don’t want to relinquish those creature comforts, and why should we have to? At the same time, we need to find ways to tackle these changed conditions. And that’s only possible when you actually know that they exist. That’s something too few people have focused on to date. Essentially, there are no concrete concepts in place on how to deal with a breakdown of these infrastructures. [caption id="attachment_17917" align="alignnone" width="768"]photo by johoelken/ photocase.de photo by johoelken/ photocase.de[/caption] Have governments approached you for advice? Ever since the launch of my book I have been traveling from conferences and foundations to ministries, companies, etc. The sheer number of requests has taken me by surprise. In Germany, discourse on this matter is already more intense due to the country’s shift towards alternative energies. Does this energy shift and turnaround constitute a danger in terms of your book’s scenario? No. I am actually disappointed by the way it is dealt with. But in the long run there is no alternative to switching to regenerative energies. It is simply about finding the right approach. After all, it is not only about energy itself, but also about all complex systems. Physical ones like water, electricity, and transport as well as social ones like politics or the environment. In the end, climate is nothing but a complex system. Anything we do anywhere is likely to come back to haunt us. So, if we in Europe continue to blast the same amount of CO2 into the atmosphere, this will likely cause the flooding of several Pacific islands. We need to spend more time and thought on these connections and relationships. Are you hoping that your book will make a change and have an impact? The most frequent reaction to my book is not „oh no, how terrible!“, but “ah, that’s interesting! I should really give this some thought.” The most obvious or initial reaction might be that people replenish their store of water and tinned food. But then they start to think about social structures and how they might be able to change or influence them. It takes relatively little to keep decent structures up and running, at least for a certain amount of time. For example, it would help a lot if people knew how to work elevators manually to make sure that it does not take officials up to three days to free all of those who got stuck in Berlin. There are many extremely simple measures available that could make a huge difference. But we are only just starting to consider these scenarios and solutions. Header image by J-M-K/ photocase.de Interview by Alexandra Schade and Lilly Wolf

Have governments approached you for advice?

Ever since the launch of my book I have been traveling from conferences and foundations to ministries, companies, etc. The sheer number of requests has taken me by surprise. In Germany, discourse on this matter is already more intense due to the country’s shift towards alternative energies.

Does this energy shift and turnaround constitute a danger in terms of your book’s scenario?

No. I am actually disappointed by the way it is dealt with. But in the long run there is no alternative to switching to regenerative energies. It is simply about finding the right approach.

After all, it is not only about energy itself, but also about all complex systems. Physical ones like water, electricity, and transport as well as social ones like politics or the environment. In the end, climate is nothing but a complex system. Anything we do anywhere is likely to come back to haunt us. So, if we in Europe continue to blast the same amount of CO2 into the atmosphere, this will likely cause the flooding of several Pacific islands. We need to spend more time and thought on these connections and relationships.

Are you hoping that your book will make a change and have an impact?

The most frequent reaction to my book is not „oh no, how terrible!“, but “ah, that’s interesting! I should really give this some thought.” The most obvious or initial reaction might be that people replenish their store of water and tinned food. But then they start to think about social structures and how they might be able to change or influence them.

It takes relatively little to keep decent structures up and running, at least for a certain amount of time. For example, it would help a lot if people knew how to work elevators manually to make sure that it does not take officials up to three days to free all of those who got stuck in Berlin. There are many extremely simple measures available that could make a huge difference. But we are only just starting to consider these scenarios and solutions.

Header image by J-M-K/ photocase.de
Interview by Alexandra Schade and Lilly Wolf