Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

All Those Who Gain Power Are Afraid To Lose It (or, Taking Things for Granite, Part 2)

This has been a year full of moments when I was forced to realize that, all things considered, I’ve got it pretty good.

This last week or so … another moment. Hurricane Irene came barreling out of the Caribbean as a Category 3 hurricane, and every single one of the National Weather Service’s computer models had this thing smacking straight through Cape Hatteras, Virginia Beach, Washington, Philadelphia, New York City, and central Massachusetts. There was no doubt. Here comes a whopper.

The forecasters were right about the whole thing except for two details: Irene was “just a bit outside” and went over the top of Tanglewood on its way to Vermont; originally, the forecast middle of the strike zone was much closer to my house. By the time it hit the mid-Atlantic cities, it was only … “only!” … a Category 1. A “mere” tropical storm did a number on Vermont – such that I asked a colleague if she knew of any towns in Vermont named Berlin, because they were sending airlifts to the Green Mountain State now.

My own house didn’t lose power during the Saturday evening/Sunday morning storm and did not flood. No trees dropped branches or their whole selves on top of my house or car. I *did* spend Monday evening and the first few moments of Tuesday morning without power, and therein lies the tale.

I found a number of things not to take for granted.

Monday afternoon, when I arrived home from my first teacher-prep day of the school year, I walked in the front door of my house, looked left to check the time by looking at the cable-TV control box in the living room, and noticed none of the usual red numbers upon it.

Ah. Power out. Well, it’s not ten below and an ice storm, or 115 degrees in the shade, so I’ll live. I’ll just check my…

Email. Ah. Can’t. No power.

Okay, I’ll just fire up a…

Leftover piece of pizza. Ah. Can’t. No power.

Okay, I’ll just practice the hymns for next Sunday’s service on my…

Electronic keyboard. Ah. Can’t. No power.

Okay, I’ll just start work on cleaning out the…

Basement. Very few tiny windows. Can’t turn on the lights. All together now: no power.

Okay, I get the joke.

I was forced to sit close to a window and read a book. Horrors.

So, Thing Not To Take For Granted #1: living in a part of the world where there is available electrical power for the great majority of time.

Thing #2: having running water in the house which is not powered by some sort of electricity, therefore if the power goes out I can still, you know, bathe.

Thing #3: having a house, at all. With a roof. Which, for the past five years, has not leaked.

There are parts of the world where any or all of these things are not likely to be in place.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to imagine how “The Settlers” (as they were termed in elementary school social studies class) did it. Let’s jump in a boat (powered by wind only), cross the ocean, plant our flag on the first land we find and live there. If we’re lucky, it’ll only be New England winter for seven months out of the year, and there are no supply lines to refresh our provisions; and if your winter coat is damaged or stolen by woodland creatures, you’re bang outta luck. Oh, by the way, before you grow your own food and build your own shelter, you’ll need to clear a lot of land. Many trees in the way. Did you remember the axe? Oh, and the land has lots and lots of rocks in it and they will kill the shovel you brought. Okay, whose job was it to bring that? … Whose great idea was this again? …

And, for modern Americans, well beyond sheer survival issues … oh, the comforts, luxuries and toys we’ve grown used to. And most of them plug in somehow.

After the sun went down and I was forced to go to bed – at 8:30 at night!? (…good idea, actually) – I had lots of time to wonder, “what if…?”

This kept me awake awhile, partly because a few days before, I’d been watching TV (powered by electricity) and saw a little tiny piece of one of the “Die Hard” movie sequels, the one in which techno-terrorists take control of most of the technological and electronic elements of American life. Traffic lights are all made to go green all at once, causing lots of car wrecks; and it all goes to heck and downhill from there.

So what if? What if cyber-terrorists take down the power grid? Or, more innocently but no less destructive, what if a big storm does the same? What if an earthquake does a number on one or more power plants? Hello, says Japan, been there, done that. What if Irene had hit New York City and the rest of the northeast as a Category 3 hurricane, as had been predicted? The movie “The Day After Tomorrow” may have been a little over-the-top, but what if…?

This blog goes dark, that’s what!

But beyond that horrifying prospect… as a society, we’re spectacularly dependent upon technology that runs on electricity. We’ve placed ourselves, over the course of many many years, into a remarkably fragile latticework: if suddenly we don’t have enough (or any) electricity, then this and this can’t happen, which means this and this can’t be done, which will keep us from being able to do this and this … it’s a Choose Your Own Adventure story with no happy ending.

Brings up all kinds of issues. Upkeep of energy infrastructure (government or private-sector?), energy resource exploitation and development, conservation or lack of… And for the moment, I’m going to swerve around the topic of climate change, which for the moment will save about 17 paragraphs.

Makes my head hurt. And lots of the people in corporate America, particularly in the energy industries … and lots of the people running our government, particularly the newer people but also the veteran lawmakers whose political careers are funded (thus heavily influenced) by energy industry lobbyists … ought to have their heads hurt at least as much, about this subject. They’re the people who could do something about this, if they tried hard enough. If they tried. If they wanted to try.

I’m lucky enough (this moment) to have some nice things. Plenty of people aren’t this lucky, both around the world and in the American city in which I live. For the moment, on the spectrum that has the Haves on one end and the Have-Nots on the other, I’m closer to the comfortable end. And I’m trying not to take this for granted. But if the power goes out, whether for man-made or natural reasons, a huge number of things – from the little refrigerators that keep the Have-Nots’ food from spoiling, to the devices that allow the Haves to play “Angry Birds” – work equally poorly. And if the power goes out for a longer period of time than a couple of hours, people go from cabin fever-y to antsy to impatient to yelling at power company trucks as they drive by.

And if the power goes out for a really, really long time … ?

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September 4, 2011 - Posted by | government, news, politics, technology | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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