When the Power Goes Out

May 18, 2017 | Posted in: Sociology

Cover of Radio Broadcast magazine, November, 1926

Cover of Radio Broadcast magazine, November, 1926

The electricity has gone out. I awoke to a deluge of water-heavy snow (normal bipolar springtime weather) and by mid-afternoon a BOOM sounded the death of the local electrical transformer. I keep switching on lights just to remember there are no lights. I tried to connect to the internet to write this post and remembered there is no internet. I’m hoping power comes on soon since with no power there’s no heat. But it’s daylight for now and I have a charged laptop, so life goes on mostly unimpeded.

The last time our electricity went out here it was evening in late November, and the cold and dark were daunting. The power line that feeds constant energy into our home was shattered into splintered wood and shredded cables, a fearful mess, all caused by one ill-fated squirrel whose furry paws grasped the wrong part of an electrical pole. A small explosion, fur flew (a quick death for our tragic rodent), and eight hours eked by before a crew could restore power to most of our block.

Modern human life is absolutely dependent on the stream of electricity flowing in from the grid, and when it’s out, we’re out of luck. This dependency is only obvious when the electrical teat runs dry, and all our devices and comfortable buildings suddenly feel pointless, no help at all. In November 1965, the Northeast blackout left Ontario, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Vermont all without power for up to 13 hours. This affected 30 million people spread out over 80,000 miles:

“In New York City—the world’s most concentrated electric market—800,000 people were trapped in the subway; countless others were in elevators—‘like hamsters in their cages,’ a New York Times reporter would say—or in offices high up in skyscrapers… Not everyone risked descending to the street by way of the darkened stairwells. More than five hundred people would spend the night in the forty-eight story skyscraper that housed the offices of Life magazine, and an emergency medical center would be set up in the lobby.” Jane Brox, Brilliant

AEG ad, Peter Behrens, 1907

AEG ad, Peter Behrens, 1907

Hospitals and airports struggled to continue functioning with backup generators or no generators at all. All traffic lights were out citywide, causing collisions and gridlock. Drivers who ran out of gas found themselves stranded, as gas pumps require electricity. Reptiles and greenhouse plants across the city were in danger of freezing as the temperature plummeted. People streamed into the struggling hospitals with injuries from blindly falling, tripping, colliding with other people and cars. Candles and matches were suddenly priceless, little spots of light in the ever darkening night. The main source of light for the city suddenly became the full moon that luckily coincided with the blackout. Still, life as NYC knew it was suspended:

“Time and task were both disorienting, for if you were to remove everything from our lives that depends on electricity to function, homes and offices would become no more than the chambers and passages of limestone caves—simple shelter from wind and rain… No way to preserve food, or to cook it. The things that define us, quiet as rock outcrops—the dumb screens and dials, the senseless clicks of on/off switches—without their purpose, they lose the measure of their beauty, and we are left alone in the dark with countless useless things… [It] simply felt as if the world had stopped and everyone and everything were suspended in amber.” Brox

Philips electric lighting advert from 1918

Philips electric lighting advert from 1918

Outages shake us, replace surety with chaos, comfort with stress. And the electricity fails frequently, with multiple major power outages occurring each year. In 2003, 50 million people lost power (again in the Northeast), and some had to wait two days for it to be restored. Smaller outages occur all the time, and weather related outages accompany many storms. We treat electricity as a given; we pay our bill and expect it to flow unimpeded. But it’s a fragile system of wires and poles creating grids controlled by computers, and it can go out like a candle flame; and we don’t have the match to relight it. We just wait in the dark, and hope someone will turn the lights back on.

The following books informed this post:
Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, Jane Brox

Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.