Ruminations on losing power and what is appropriate technology
We lost power last Thursday night. That I still don’t know why is testament to the ordinariness of such things. I was typing away at something and suddenly all the lights went out. It had been snowing quite heavily when I drove home from work, but the snow had turned to freezing drizzle by the time the sun set and there wasn’t much precipitation after it got dark. Not enough to bring down a tree over a power line or frizzle a transformer anyway. There might have been an accident somewhere, but it had to have been at very critical juncture in the power grid. There were no lights downtown, no lights across the valley. Then when I left for work the next morning, the traffic lights were all blinking, meaning they’d regained power, but recently enough that nobody had had time to reset them. (Made for a rough pass through the convoluted 8-way intersection alongside our town common triangle. Given buildings, trees and a gazebo, you can’t see all the other roads from any given entry.)
So nothing got posted last Friday. Not being able to decipher my handwritten notes by candlelight or to keep this machine on for more than a half hour without it being plugged in (it has battery-monitoring software demons that I can’t exorcise), I just went to bed. Heat was off anyway, and I felt it would be prudent to go hide under blankets. But this is actually both sort of instructive and a happy synchronicity. Part of what I was talking about was this very same infrastructural tenuousness, only through the lens of a book on The Blizzard (yes, capitalized) of 1888. So I have a new chapter to add.
First, let me say that the power will go out. It happens in places where there are overhead transport wires more often than where cables are buried, but it will go out. Frequently. From now until forever. Let me also say that this is not new. There is nothing novel about energy grid failures. Our systems have been fragile from the outset (mostly because they are all built under the logic of capitalism, and therefore all costs that can be, including good design and regular maintenance, are cut). Add more extreme weather events and societal stresses — like distracted humans hurtling about in increasingly monstrous vehicles — and the system will topple.
Are we prepared for this? Are we even acknowledging that this is problematic? Nope. Every time the grid has a massive failure somewhere — and, for those who aren’t keeping track, this happens at least monthly in the US alone, all year long — we run around squawking like chickens under a cloud of Cooper’s hawks, as if this has never happened before and we have no idea what to do about it and, most importantly, who exactly can we blame for it!?!
I have to amend that preparedness statement. Because we in the boonies are generally prepared. We have plenty of experience with attenuated connection to the modern world. In some places we never got the grid up and running to begin with. And up North, we have year-round weather stresses. It gets cold in the winter, and in many parts of the North there is high precipitation in December and January, meaning many opportunities for power lines to come crashing down. Yet it also gets hot and, in many places, very wet in the warm months, particularly in the melt season. So flooding and mudslides — to say nothing of huge storms with violent winds and lightning — add more ways to topple a transmitter tower or an elevated power line. Furthermore, there are very few buried cables out in the boondocks because it’s expensive to bury things and what corporation is going to waste that expense on the few people — probably impoverished anyway — who don’t have the sense to migrate to the city. Also, the boondocks have notable problems with rivers, rocks and mountains where it’s not practical to bury things — or even run a line at all.
Vermont counts as one large boondocks. We have towns. Sort of. Some of the towns call themselves cities, but really only Burlington qualifies in that category of population concentration. And it’s not a big city. Less than 45,000 people. In fact, the entire population of Vermont is less than the population of the Albuquerque metro area, which is also not known as a large city. And like in Albuquerque, there isn’t a lot of wealth in Vermont. It is a small place with not much money flowing around. (These are related issues…) The practical effect here is that Vermont is a tiny market. It is generally not worth the investment. There aren’t enough potential sales here of anything to justify incurring expenses. We are a net loss. And so we are not on the grid. The grid is not interested in us.
But this means we are experts at living without the grid. When the power goes off for no apparent reason, as it does, we switch to off-grid mode and go on about our lives. We do not run around like terrified chickens. We make sure nothing will break down even further. We check on our neighbors. And we slow down. Often we decide to go to bed early.
Now the thing is, this is the way everybody will be living for more and more days every year, even those in large metropolitan areas with fancy energy grids and lots of back-ups. Because all energy grids have at least one critical weakness — they are all dependent upon transport. Which fails in extreme situations. Many power generating and transformer stations are also located on or near bodies of water and will be increasingly under that water, generally to the detriment of electricity production. And then there are all the problems with increasing complexity in control and monitoring systems, increasing difficulty in finding labor (which is also related to transport), increasing resource shortages (yes, also transport-related), increasing equipment and infrastructure aging with little maintenance, and on and on and on. So we all might as well learn how to cope. And that doesn’t involve chicken squawking and casting blame.
Now, you might say, I have roof-top solar; I have my own private source of electricity; I’m not grid-dependent. To which I will reply, good for you! But… Unless your solar panels are not connected to the grid — which is not true for the majority of installations — and unless you have battery back-up on your property (or with a very local energy co-ownership community), you will not have electricity when the grid fails. Your solar panels will continue to gather energy if it is sunny, but your energy delivery systems will shut down. This is done for safety reasons (which are not clear to me, but then this is the byzantine electrical grid we’re talking about… nothing is clear…).
And there is another problem with that sort of thinking. You might have solar power, but almost nothing you depend upon will have its own dependable private energy. Very few businesses have made any investment in off-grid energy because thus far they haven’t been forced to incur that expense in a city. They are located in urban or suburban areas precisely so they can be connected to the grid. That’s the purpose of a city, after all, concentrated flows of cheap energy… So you probably will have no phone, no internet, no television or connectivity to news sources. If you have gas-lines to your house, there is a good chance that flows will be interrupted (also for safety reasons, but that at least is comprehensible…). You may have no running water if municipal water systems are pump dependent or require large energy inputs for treatment. After only a few hours of generator power, there will be no gas stations or grocery stores and very few places to buy ready-made food. Your children will have no school and it’s likely there will be no childcare available. During long power outages, much of the city transport service will be shut down. In most cases there will be no public lighting for safety. And if you are draining your own batteries during a prolonged time of stormy weather with little recharge, you yourself will soon run out of power. Or at least, you will need to conserve what you have for essential things like refrigeration and HVAC systems, or, if you live totally off-grid in many regions, electrical pumping of your well.
And let’s not even think about grid-failure terrors like hospitals and nuclear power stations…
So how do we learn to live with this?
This is where Vermont can help. We have tips.
The first and maybe most important thing may seem like nothing at all. You will spend no money or labor on it. It isn’t something you do. It’s literally all in your head. But it is both fiendishly difficult and absolutely critical. You have to learn to slow down. You have to adjust your mind to interruption as a normal occurrence. You have to accept that things will not get done. This is societal as much as individual learning. You will not get to work, and both you and your employer need to learn how to cope with that. Your kids will miss school. The plans you made for travel will not happen, and you probably won’t get refunded. That report that absolutely has to be filed by Friday will not be. This includes payroll… If your employer is local and also not filing reports, this might mean that you may not get paid — though you can bet that anyone who is collecting money from you will find ways to do that. (Unless you bank locally at a credit union like mine which tends to disbelieve in the power of computers to make transactions without human oversight…)
In any case, we all need to learn to be prepared for full stop at any time. We need to learn to understand and accept that work will not get done. And we need to be comfortable with that. This mental and emotional skill is completely at odds with our work-is-my-life attitude. It will hurt. It will cause feelings of guilt and inadequacy. It will also reveal just how pointless and unnecessary most work actually is. If whatever you do all day can be put on indefinite hold at any time and nothing happens, then does it need to be done at all? These are things you have to make peace with.
Another critical mental adjustment you’ll need to make to avoid going mental is to learn to be at home. When the grid fails, you are not going anywhere. But you also aren’t going to have much contact with the world outside your home. You need to learn how to feel comfortable in your own place, assured and relaxed and able to meet any challenges. You need to have what you need on hand and to know how to do for yourself. But you also need to learn to entertain yourself, calm yourself, keep yourself from going crazy with anxiety. If you have children or other dependents who may not fully understand what is happening, you need to project that calm to reassure them as well. You need to be at home and in charge when disaster hits. And this too is at odds with our cultural norms. We are encouraged to seek distractions from our anxieties, but there are no distractions when you can’t leave the house, either physically or virtually. So we have to learn to be content without all that.
The next two things are “things that can be done”, which I’m sure make them easier to face for most people than adjusting beliefs and habits. It helps that both will help you become more assured at home and comfortable with putting “normal” life on pause. One will cost you some expense, perhaps; the other will reduce your expenses. So they sort of cancel out as far as investment is concerned.
Let’s talk about the expense first. To be prepared for any sort of disaster, the key is to not be dependent on one thing for any critical need. You need to build redundancy into your life. Make sure you have back-up power for anything that is critical. For me, that means keeping the heat on, hence this summer I will be putting in a wood stove. For many folks, the fridge is essential. So buy a gasoline- or kerosene-powered generator, learn how to hook it into your house electrical system, and keep enough fuel on hand to run that thing for a day or more. It also helps to figure out other methods of keeping food or medicine cold. This might be as simple as having an insulated cooler that you can put outside in cold weather. But figure out many ways to meet that need and have them all in place well before the alternates are necessary.
You will also need to have back-up ways of getting food and sometimes water. I habitually store several gallons of water in my house even now when my water supply is not electricity dependent. As to food, you probably won’t be able to cook when the power goes out. You won’t be ordering take-out. There may not even be a grocery store open and able to do business, even if you could get there. (Most grid failures happen in nasty weather, you know…) So keep a supply of “power outage food” on hand, things that can be put on bread and involve minimal clean-up (since you may not have a functioning hot water heater). If you have kids, you could have a supply of granola snacks or fruity things that only come out when the power goes down. Make it fun stuff, comforting, even sort of special (but not too sugary or you’ll want to throttle the little darlings in short order). If you’re inclined to baking, having a cookie jar that is kept filled is actually a great way to be prepared for anxiety munching. I make popcorn and keep it in an airtight canister. This is not only good for power outages; it’s also good for when I come home from work and am just too knackered to do anything but crash.
Keep in mind that all the people in your house have needs. So if you have four-legged or feathered or finned family members, whatever they need must be kept on hand also.
There are other things you should stockpile. Flashlights with good batteries are useful. Candles or oil lamps and ways to light them are also handy. If you are dependent on medications, then you need to have several days’ worth in your house all the time. In the US the pandemic taught us the importance of having extra rolls of toilet paper in the house. But also keep essential cleaning supplies on hand and keep the medicine cabinet well-stocked. (It’s amazing how many Band-aids are needed when the lights go out.) These are all things that used to be common sense but have fallen out of favor in recent years as we’ve started to lean on things like just-in-time delivery.
Because grid failures are related to extreme events that can cause other emergencies like fires and floods and so on, you should also make sure you have redundancy built into your emergency systems within your home — fire detectors that will work on batteries, for example — and within your neighborhood. Where do you go if a tree falls on your house? How do you get there? How do you respond if it’s your neighbor’s house? How do you alert emergency services when the grid is down? Emergencies are when we all need to help each other. Neighbors are redundancy. A group is much better equipped to respond to anything than a single person. So it’s a good idea to get to know your neighbors before there is an emergency. (Pro-tip… that crazy guy down the block who regularly cranks up his loud generator at 5am and has that enormous short-wave radio antenna on his roof? He’s very likely going to be able to send out emergency calls when cell phones don’t work. Just saying…) In any case, knowing that your neighbors are looking out for you — as you are for them — is reassurance in any stressful situation.
So those are things that might require investment, at least of time if not money. Now for the promised way to save money. You probably aren’t going to like it. It probably will sound trite. But the best thing you can do to be ready for recurring power outages is to use less energy. (Back to that “collapse early and avoid the rush” thing…)
This one is really unpopular. A few mornings ago, the Weather Channel posted a video clip with a tagline that said something like “experts now say that individuals may be key to stopping climate change”. This was such a breathtakingly stupid thing to say that I clicked on the link to see what new snake oil was being sold this time. Maybe, I hoped, with this really poorly written title they were trying to say that individual choices like powering down and not buying so much stuff would have more of an impact than previously believed.
The “experts” — which turned out to be one report in the Washington Post, which has dubious ownership these days — were saying that though we know that large chunks of global emissions can be traced to a couple dozen corporations, individuals in the US now have the buying power and tax incentives to buy our way out of the messes those corporations have made. Don’t expect industry to foot the bill for remediation. No, we’re supposed to go out and buy solar panels and electric cars, shopping our way into a brighter future. The video even showed a gas burning stove, like that’s somehow beneficial… But anyway, that’s the best advice the Weather Channel could come up with. Don’t slow down the spending; speed it up. And that will “stop climate change” (whatever that means). Well, I can say from experience that buying more things that are dependent upon electricity (or just buying more things period) is not going to help you adapt to the effects of climate change (which is not stoppable). To adapt to an intermittent power grid, you need to not have so many reasons to need energy. At most, you need to power down before the collapse does that for you forcibly. Buying more stuff is the opposite of what you need!
Happily, powering down will not only make you more resilient, it will save you money. You won’t have such high energy bills. You won’t need expensive gadgets and all their upkeep. And if you don’t need as much power, you don’t have to build in as much redundancy for when the power goes down.
So get off the grid. This means not just installing your own grid, but changing how you do things so that you don’t need energy at all. Learn to do things without flaky electricity. Learn to do without many of the things that suck up energy and don’t meet any of your needs. You don’t need social media when you have friends next door. (You probably don’t need social media even if you don’t have friends next door, but that’s an argument for a different day.) You don’t need a big refrigerator and lots of energy-hog appliances if you learn to stock a pantry and cook simple, nutritious food. You may not need much refrigeration at all if you don’t eat meat or dairy. You certainly don’t need a television, nor even a computer. But if you’re new to this off-grid living, then you may need to find ways to sooth your anxious mind, to be at home. So learn to knit. Or play the guitar. Or do yoga. Or paint.
And of course have a good supply of books on hand.
Being in hibernation mode, I’ve been reading all over the map recently. Books on orcharding and mountain garden cultures and ways to store and use garden produce. Many novels — from Fredrik Backman to N. K. Jemisin. A couple new books on climate, its past and our future. A cookbook or two. And, my favorite, history.
I’m a storyteller and, in the languages I am most comfortable reading, we are just beginning to tell the Story of Us that includes more than just a sliver of all the possible ways of being human. It is a fun time to read history. For the first time in my life, it is possible to see myself and the majority of the people I know and love in those tales.
But there are still relics. Especially in the field of prehistory (what used to be called archeology but, I find, isn’t so much anymore — not a good trend, as it reduces all the complexity of the past prior to writing to mere preface). For example, Man the Hunter still seems to be at large, and so many EuroWestern writers still talk about “human (universal) nature” — and then limit that nature to EuroWestern characteristics, particularly self-absorption. But here’s a nastier example. I was reading a 2022 book on human origins in which there was an illustration of an early human making a stone tool. I am happy to report that this illustrated ptool-maker was female. So there’s that progress… But she was also naked — though her body was completely hairless, begging all sorts of questions about exposure and her ability to retain warmth. And she was very distinctly white, long flowing hair and all. It was jarring. I completely lost the thread of the text and, soon after, had to close the book.
I picked up this book because the subtitle promised that there would be an exploration of the past that would lead to better understanding of our future. I didn’t get deep into the book, but it did not seem to be trending in that direction. The exploration was focused on human technology, which, to be fair, is almost all we have to study from our ancient ancestors. But when we view the world solely through a tool-using lens, we limit our understanding of complex processes to “problems” and “solutions”. When tool use is centered, our vision of the future becomes a debate on the proper toolkit to fix all the problems our tool use has created. Worse yet, seeing ourselves through our tools tends to breed assumptions of human specialness. At best when we focus on our toolkits, we lose sight of the fact that we are not apart from Nature but a part of nature.
Now, this book’s tone was ambivalent on value judgements; it was not techo-utopian cheerleading where tools are our salvation. But the fact of human separation from the rest of the biophysical realm was assumed and clearly revealed in statements like this: “The invention of technology has been groundbreaking in our evolutionary process because it has allowed our species to move beyond basic physiological responses and into the realm of technological solutions…”
This is a dangerous slope. It doesn’t take much to go from “we are successful because we make tools” to “our tools enable us to overcome limits” to “limits do not exist”. I stopped reading when it became clear that the book was decidedly leaning toward declaring humanity exempt from limits because we can create new tools.
In contrast, another book I picked up recently — inspired by the weather, of course — was an object lesson in how our tools have failed us, how a reliance on tool-use thinking blinds us to our place within this complex planet, and how we do not see that our tools have not allowed us to transcend much of anything. In The Blizzard of ’88 (Atheneum, 1988), Mary Cable shows that not only did technology fail when pitted against the weather, but tech, especially transportation technology, caused further harm. Commuters were trapped in trains for days without food or heat. Deliveries of everything from milk to fuel were halted at the edges of the storm. Cities all across the Northeast were crippled, but New York was hit hardest. Cable repeatedly points out that urbanites suffered the most precisely because their lives were built on modern amenities — which turned out to be built on nothing at all.
Wires snapped and thrashed around on the wind, crashing down onto pedestrians. Drifts of snow blocked doors and windows up to the second or third floors, trapping people in homes that had little provisioning — because everything could be delivered within hours so why bother storing anything? Lights went out and the many who were dependent on modern lighting didn’t even keep candles. Because work never ceased and most people would lose their jobs if they dared miss even an hour for such things as extreme weather, many people died trying to get to work.
There was a prevalent sense that urban modernity was a fair weather friend indeed, that those who lived with less convenience were better able to weather the weather. In the days following the storm, many newsmen opined that the just-in-time infrastructure and systems of the current century were decidedly inferior to the “slow-going” previous century. Some went so far as to say that technology was responsible for more deaths than the storm itself. Even politicians were heard questioning the judiciousness of relying so heavily on fragile systems that were all but guaranteed to break down in extreme situations — at the very times when needs are most desperate.
The Hartford Courant put it this way: “It is our own ‘advantages’ that have gone back on us.”
What is most interesting about Cable’s story is that this was The Blizzard of March 11, 1888…
Cable’s book shows that 135 years ago, we already knew — viscerally — that our clever tools were poor substitutes for preparedness and old-fashioned provisioning. The speedy transport of the day — narrow gauge steam trains and horse cars — enabled patterns of living that separated work from home and home from any means of meeting needs. In a classic example of the negative effects of positive feedback, with more speed, distance became built into our infrastructure which in turn made speedy transport even more necessary. But transport could and did break down — and then nothing could bridge the distance between need and the means of meeting needs.
Not only did we not transcend nature with our tools, our tools crippled us. We thought we were escaping limits, but one storm laid bare that we’d escaped nothing, only created more ways to suffer damages.
Unfortunately, we didn’t learn much. Oh, there was a move to get all the overhead cabling underground so that frozen electrical wires would never again flail about in a gale. But instead of building redundancy back into the system, we doubled down on spacing everything out over increasingly transport-dependent living patterns. Two generations after the Storm, we began the suburban project, separating the home from every other need, including work at distances only bridgeable in a car. Our reliance on transportation technology has led to a world that now requires that technology. Because that is what technology does best. Left unchecked and unexamined, technology will create new dependencies. It creates its own self-perpetuating systems.
Failure of technology is the norm, not the exception. Yet we can’t see this in our blind acceptance of tools. This isn’t just idiotic hubris. There are many drivers, pushing us away from common sense and into the arms of tech. It is very difficult to make money off of those whose needs are comfortably met. It is also difficult to get those comfortable folks to labor in the interest of capitalism. Reliance on the system really only comes when there is no choice except the system. Technology is capitalism’s favorite tool for eliminating alternatives to this system, for removing our choice.
I think it is safe to say that our ability to create technology has not placed human beings outside the rest of this limited planet. We have not invented our way toward transcendence. We have not engineered ourselves out of dependency. In fact, we haven’t met very many needs at all through modern technology. We have sped up production on some things, but we can’t produce air, water, sunlight, or energy from sunlight. We can’t live without myriad other living beings — from trees to the microbes in our bellies — and we can’t make life. Our toolkits can’t even make food. Our technology is largely superfluous stuff that is made to generate revenue. It is stuff to sell.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like tools. I like things that extend my body’s abilities. And there are appropriate tools, ones that reliably enable us to meet our needs in many conditions. A useful toolkit tends to be durable, simple and not very good at generating revenue. Most importantly, a good tool won’t create situations where the loss of the tool is an unfulfilled need. I tend to be suspicious of any tool that greatly expands human capacity, not least because with greater power usually comes greater waste and greater capacity for destruction. I like hand saws and pruners; I am not as fond of chain saws. The capacity for destruction in a chain saw is almost as vast as its capacity for breaking down just because. If I had to rely on the chain saw in pruning season, there would not be a pruning season.
This is sort of a silly example, but it is true — and scalable — to just about any other tool suite. The more a tool exceeds human power, the more damage it does and the more likely it is to break. (Usually right after it has caused a great deal of damage, in my experience.) Finally, it is harder to build redundancy with more powerful tools because the more powerful a tool is, the more it costs, eliminating room in the budget for a broader variety of tools. When you have a chain saw, you are less likely to have the money to spend on multiple saws and pruners. And this, too, is true of most other tool suites. The more power something has, the more it costs, and the less likely you are to be able to afford to stockpile alternatives to that tool. You become dependent on that tool by default.
I think the lesson in The Blizzard is that we harm ourselves when we depend upon our toolkits, particularly those tools that operate outside of human capacities. When we can’t use the car because there are twelve-foot tall drifts of snow — or because fuel is too costly — we can’t simply walk. The distance easily traveled by car is too far on foot. The car extends our range of travel, but at the expense of dependency on the car because those distances are beyond human capacity. So whatever we need at the end of that trip we must do without when the car and car systems fail. Which will happen.
In our endless quest for independence and transcendence, we have done neither. Instead, we made a toolkit that creates more dependencies and regularly succumbs to limits. We are still dependent on all the things of this planet that we always were dependent upon, but now we are also dependent on these tools as well. And these tools are even more limited than we are. They will break, early and often.
So we are more dependent than ever, with our rather clunky toolkit coming between us and all our real needs. When we build homes that can only be heated when the grid is functioning, then on all those days when it is not, there is no heat. When we live miles from where we work or go to school, then on all those days when it is not possible to travel by automobile, we do not go to work or school. When we depend upon a whole slew of tools functioning properly to be able to have water for drinking and bathing, then when any part of that systems breaks, we have no water. The more complexity we build between ourselves and our fulfilled needs, the more likely it is that we won’t have fulfilled needs.
This is just common sense, but our love of the tools we make has separated us from our senses. It takes a crippling blast of arctic cold — or a drunk driver plowing into a transformer — for us to even notice how fragile our toolkits are. Then after the forced reality break is marginally cleaned up, we go right back to being senseless. This is bad enough when The Blizzard only happens once in a lifetime. When incapacitating blizzards — and hurricanes and fires and diseases and social unrest and, and, and — happen every few weeks, then… well, we don’t recover.
Our tools do not help us overcome blizzards. There is no overcoming a blizzard; there is only weathering it. Sitting it out. And we can sit it out in cold, dark houses with empty bellies and no water, or we can sit it out with candlelight and cookies and a warm wood stove. Appropriate tools that function in most circumstances or tools that break down and come between you and your needs? That is the question that blizzards help us answer. The lessons from the past are that we really can’t depend on tech to pave our way into the future. We can’t depend on tech at all if we want to see the future. We depend on this Earth. And no tool is ever going to end that interdependency.
Photo by Barn Images on Unsplash