Power and Powerlessness
|January 9, 2007||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Life Without “Power”
“We were without power for twelve days!” is the report, declared with a sort of roughneck pride. That long an outage is, after all, a little unusual (that’s the word that everyone’s been using to describe this year’s winter weather) — at least for modern citizens of these United States. “Perhaps,” I mused at one point, “rural electrification is just another of these big federal giveaways, like welfare, that we can’t afford in this leaner, meaner world economy…” Let me tell you: nobody wanted to hear that.
What an odd and insidious sort of natural disaster! Hurricanes and tornadoes strike with huge force; floods sweep away walls and fields. But an ice storm? It’s hard to believe. On the second day of the freezing drizzle a local paper published an arty photo of a lovely glazed branch. But the drizzle kept coming, and coming, and coming, until trees gained three or four times their normal weight, and all night long you could hear a constant SNAP! and CRASH! and SNAP! and CRASH! like all the Maine woods were being attacked by a berserk karate-chopping Paul Bunyan.
Soon, no trees had tops — and virtually no power lines hung unfreighted. At the height of the damage over a half-million people in Maine — and even more in Canada — were without electric service, and the Time of Endurance began. The very trees seemed defeated: many that were not snapped were bowed literally double under the weight of ice.
Many citizens, of course, simply were not equipped to withstand an extended stretch of Maine winter without piped-in energy, and had to take refuge in emergency shelters. A surprising number, though — especially of our Waldo County neighbors — were well- enough equipped that the situation brought us not so much danger as relentless, monumental annoyance. And as everyone compared notes about how long we’d been “without power” — and when the “power” might come back on — I started ruminating on the precise meaning of that word, and its application in our “normal” lives.
Although “the power” was off, to be sure, we couldn’t say that we were, exactly, power-less. Certainly many were worse off, and come to think of it, many of the world’s citizen’s are regularly worse off than we were (of course I can say this now; the crisis is past). We had heat, of course: the wood burned just as warmly without electricity.
We had water, from an old dug well. It hadn’t been tested for a long time, so we didn’t use it for drinking without boiling, (although it probably would have been OK). First we had to chainsaw through the ice and old cedar poles covering the well. Then, each morning we dipped bucketfuls. Some went up the hill to water the sheep (their water from the day before would have frozen overnight), and the rest went inside for washing and toilet-flushing. I figured we were averaging somewhere around 36 hand-carried gallons a day (which of course is pretty economical in terms of average US water consumption, even without sheep). For drinking, we either boiled the well-water, bought bottled water in town, or used some pumped by a neighbor with a generator.
We even had electricity, after a fashion. What we had, actually, was a very convoluted method of using the energy stored in gasoline to power our freezers (and later on, our computers). The freezers were essential, because they held large stores of meat and other foods. One sturdy 8HP generator ran pretty much constantly for those twelve days, shuttled among three households. (Other similar generator-shuttlings were going on all over the place — the extent of community pulling-together was very high indeed.) This was (don’t get me wrong) a monumental hassle: schedules got miscommunicated; cars got stuck; freezers got inadvertently propped ajar wasting six hours of precious power, etc., etc. But it also necessitated a constant round of visiting and comparing notes — just as important to sane survival, I’ll warrant, as preserved food. As the time dragged on, someone like me, who makes a living using a computer, began to feel the pinch. Generators will not safely power computers, because they tend to create memory-frying power spikes. But, during one of the generator-shuttling runs, a neighbor suggested I try a device called an inverter — and brought out his copy of the Alternative Energy Sourcebook to show me what such a thing is. So out I went and rented one. Phone service had been restored by that point, so I was now able to respond to my email, using a twelve-volt battery (and I learned, incidentally, a bit more about the technology that’s now available to power modern twelve-volt “off-the-grid” homes on solar or wind power).
In the end, although we were certainly hampered, tired, cranky, desperately in need of hot showers, and pretty much Tired of Playing This Game, it really would not be accurate to say that we were without power.
My Father-in-law, who enjoys lodging the odd intellectual burr in my brain, commented that this is how western civilization would end: all would become dependent on interconnected information machines, and the whole system would crash, “leaving us back in the stone age.” I got to thinking about that and I realized a couple of things. First: in terms of power, versatility and sophistication, the modern computer is far closer, more akin, to the chipped stone tool than to the human brain, or the biosphere. Second: although our tools are no great shakes, really, are mostly clumsy, hacking contrivances that blunder us something like forward, we are far, far greater, as a species and a civilization, because we have them.
No, we weren’t without power for those twelve days — we were simply forced to rely on tools that were just a little bit less sophisticated that those we were accustomed to. And let me tell you: that made quite a difference.
January 22, 1998
(photos by Louise Shorette/Waldo Independent)