When is a story a signal of a future event?
I’ve been tracking a recent series of events which, while receiving little media attention, suggest some serious possibilities. They involve attacks on American electrical power stations. This isn’t about higher education, my usual topic, but does concern the infrastructure and politics alongside which colleges and universities exist.
Caveats: this is an emerging story without a lot of documentation. It’s also potentially frightening.
Here’s a timeline:
January 2022 – the United States Department of Homeland Security warns of the likelihood of terror attacks on, among other things, America’s power infrastructure.
February – three men plead guilty in Ohio to planning attacks on civilian infrastructure, including power stations. “The trio decided to disable electricity substations in major regions of the nation essentially by shooting at them, prosecutors said.”
September – several “intrusions” target Florida power stations.
early November – reports of shots fired at two different Ohio power stations.
November – six separate attacks on power stations in Washington state and Oregon.
December 3 – many shots fired at two power stations in North Carolina, causing power outages.
December 7 – someone shot a power station in South Carolina.
What does this all mean?
Let’s look at this as futurists do. We scan the horizon, looking for signals of potential futures. I sometimes call these seeds of growth which might take off. The trick is to identify the ones most likely to flourish (for better or worse) while at the same time avoiding apophenia.
To start answering the question, we can check our immediate intuitions. Perhaps we see this as a series of copycat crimes. There isn’t much media coverage, but maybe some folks have been inspired to shoot up power stations for… various reasons. Those reasons might include causing mayhem in general, terrorizing a specific region, trying to collapse civilization, or to impress some actor (organized crime, a foreign power) with one’s effectiveness. Alternatively, some or all of these attacks could be the deliberate campaign of such an organization.
Our political views can shape these intuitive responses. Liberals and those on the left might immediately view these attacks as the work of right wing groups, such as militias or hate groups. They can point to recent examples of such, along with some law enforcement warnings about these actors. Conservatives and those on the right would likely see other entities behind the shootings, such as antifa, Black Lives Matter, or ecoterrorists. (I think the latter is very unlikely, from my research into violence and climate change and its recent antecedents.)
Let’s collect more evidence, informing those intuitions with the thoughts of others. There isn’t much to work with, alas. This CNN article points to several ideas, including: “writings by extremists on online forums encouraging attacks on critical infrastructure and a series of recent disruptions of LGBTQ+ events across the nation by domestic extremists”; the possibility (dismissed) that a drag show was the target in North Carolina; that local investigations are proceeding. A local report indicates South Carolina authorities disputing the attack idea entirely. The FBI might be investigating the northwest attacks. The Guardian observes that many authorities have warned that the American power grid is vulnerable. A Daily Kos article considers right wing extremists as likely subjects. Kos also points to a DHS warning about potential Russian attacks on the American power infrastructure – cyberattacks, to be fair.
We can also look to recent history for precedents and models. Domestically, in 2014 someone cut phone lines to a California power center, then took out a bunch of transformers. In 2013 some people shot up another California power center; nobody was ever charged. Living near Washington, DC, I’m reminded of how the 2002 sniper attacks sowed fear throughout the area. There is also the shadowy history of hackers probing targets, either for their own purposes or at the behest of others. Most obviously, Russia’s war in Ukraine shows an electrical power attack in operation, as Moscow degrades Kiev’s capacity, demonstrating the effectiveness and cold-blooded appeal of such a strategy at a far greater scale.
Putting these ideas and details together, we can start to identify trends and explore some possible short- and medium-term possibilities.
Perhaps we’re seeing an organized group, hoping to exercise power and cause chaos. What’s been done so far are first steps, even test cases, and they will continue, possibly ramping up through practice and winning recruits. Some utilities may try to harden their defenses with fences, walls, drones, human guards, surveillance, government involvement, and more. It is plausible that we may experience an escalating and reinforcing series of attacks and defensive measures. This could go on for years, like the right wing Order‘s string of bank robberies on the run. Worse, the attacks could succeed in stirring political chaos, bearing out the unrest I’ve been forecasting for years.
Alternatively, these are the actions of some larger group, such as organized crime. The attacks were demonstrations which showed their capacity, either as a threat to specific actors (state governments, local communities, the federal government) or for some client, like another such group or a state actor. The attacks could pause, if their purpose has been fulfilled. Or they could continue to make the point more clearly. As in the previous case, this can elicit defensive measures from utilities and governments.
Perhaps that other group is the prime mover. A hostile power (Russia? China? North Korea?) is probing American weaknesses, either hoping to sow some chaos now or to set capabilities in place for later, larger assaults. If so, this could lead to geopolitical conflict, up to and including warfare. Again, the attacks could pause for a time as the capability, established, awaits its full use down the road.
This story could also be something… less. Perhaps all we’re seeing are a handful of individuals, possibly inspired by media stories or some extremist chatter, acting out for thrills and spectacles, without any larger purpose. Like shooting a stop sign, just scaled up a bit.
We can go further in our futures thinking. We could pair this trend with another one, such as American political instability or decarbonization, using the intersections to generate deeper scenarios. Alternatively, we could work this story through a futures wheel. We can also develop these projections as new inputs arrive, evidence and analysis.
That’s it for now. We can follow up later.