We lost electrical service to our house for 98 hours. That’s just over four days. And during these four days I discovered something odd.
I sort of liked it.
It feels wrong, saying that when over a hundred thousand of my fellow citizens are still without power. The constant question around the city these days is, “Your lights on yet?” I was at a meeting Sunday, a small group of parents; of the eight of us, five had power; to those other three, I hardly felt like reflecting on how much fun a power outage can be.
Life without electricity is not exactly the Stone Age. We still had running, potable water. We still had gas. Of course, the electrical starter mechanism for our range was out of commission, but most people still know how to light those things manually. Ironically, no electricity means no hot water for us because our tankless water heater depends on it. But cold showers felt better in the heat anyhow.
Ah yes, the heat. That is the biggest complaint for most people. Yet my barber said it best, when he came to remove the plywood from his windows this morning. “Us Americans, we’re used to the AC. But people used to live without it. We’ve just gotten soft.”
I read today about a 90 year old man who died of heat stroke over the holiday weekend. He was in a house in the suburbs without power. I don’t wish to imply that he’d “just gotten soft.” The heat can be dangerous, and any time the power goes out it’s the sick and the elderly who are most at risk.
Still I wonder. Would that man in Marrero still be alive if he’d been living a hundred years ago, before air conditioning?
Much of our old building stock reflects a different way of living, designed for comfort in this warm climate. We now say these buildings are energy inefficient, but actually people consumed far less energy a century ago. Contemporary architecture strives for efficiency of a different sort. The modern ideal is to consume massive amounts, then reduce by 10% and call that efficiency.
In a blackout we recover some of the efficiency built into our older homes. I experienced this during our days without power. It was markedly more comfortable in our living-dining rooms, where the ceilings are super high by modern standards.
I often hear people say they don’t like to eat as much in the summer when it’s blazing hot. I’ve said it myself. Yet I’ve noticed my actions rarely match this assertion. With constant climate control, we hardly feel the heat. Our so-called epidemic of obesity — could that be another electrically powered way we’re getting soft?
No electricity means taking the night more seriously. It gets dark, probably a good time to go to bed. Modern urbanites are chronically sleep-deprived. Getting into the natural rhythm of the sun is not such a bad idea. Besides, reading by oil lamp is kind of romantic. Over our four days of blackout I read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. Reading about an icy cold planet helped take my mind off the heat. But I digress.
An interesting thing about this outage was that we still enjoyed some benefits of electricity. We lived in walking distance of several electrical “islands.” We visited Brocato’s for a treat one night, and I spent an afternoon drinking beer at the Mid-City Yacht Club while Michael Homan watched the Nebraska game. Also the cell towers were still up, so I was able to use my phone to access the web. Twitter is a great source of info in disasters. When the battery ran out, I recharged it in the car. I’m sure that charging batteries off a combustion vehicle is not the most efficient means, but it worked.
One of my favorite albums is “Who Needs Electricity?” by Operation: Cliff Clavin. It’s essentially an acoustic album for a band with an amped-up electric sound, made as the principle players transitioned into more of a folk-punk thing. Rather than call it “unplugged” or some derivative of MTV’s famous series, they frame the album as campfire songs for after the collapse of civilization. It’s a brilliant conceit, and the songs ain’t bad either.
I’ve always regarded anarcho-primitivism with a jaundiced eye, while at the same time feeling they’re right about some things. The revelations of the week just past seem to bear that out.
I’m not against electricity. I like it. But the truth is we could get by using a lot less of it, and still maintain a high quality of life. In many ways we’d be better off.