Dreaming of a power outage that lasts forever.
By Max Wilbert / Earth Island Journal
Each winter, storms knock out the electricity to my home. I live in the country, over hills and past muddy pastures and brown meadows. Snow and ice grip the trees, pulling them towards the breaking point, and the lights flicker and die.
The first thing I notice is the quiet. The hum of the refrigerator, the ticking of the hot water heater, the barely perceptible vibration of the electrical system itself. The sounds drop away. That is how I awoke this February morning; to silence, just the murmur of a million wet snowflakes settling onto the trees, the grass, the cabin roof.
As a child, I craved power outages. School canceled, all obligations swept aside — an excuse to bypass the siren song of television, jobs, routine, and to instead place candles on the table and sit together around the flickering light. All this, of course, after the obligatory snowball fight.
Luck and privilege underlie my experience; the luck of living in a temperate climate, where a small fire and sweatshirt keep us warm inside; the privilege of a family with just enough money to relax and enjoy power outages despite not being able to work.
Power outages are still magical times for me. Now, grown, I live far enough away from the city that outages can last many days. We sit around the wood stove after a day of chores, cooking dinner slowly on the stovetop, snow melting in a pot for tea. Nothing is fast. There is no rush, and nowhere to go, and nothing to be done beyond: talk, read, cook, wash dishes in a tub with fire-warmed water. It is a balm to a soul chafed by the demands of modernity — speed, productivity, constant connectivity.
These days, I dream of power outages that last forever. I dream of hydroelectric dams crumbling and salmon leaping upstream, coming home. I dream of coal power plants going dark and rusting away, and of our atmosphere breathing a deep, clean sigh of relief. I even dream of wind turbines creaking to a halt and solar panels gathering dust, eventually buried by shifting Mojave sands, and of the birds and bats and our slow-moving kin, the desert tortoises, moving freely again through their desert home. I dream of power lines toppling beneath thick layers of ice and snow.
It has been said that the electric grid is the biggest machine in the world. What would it mean to turn off that machine, to throw a wrench in its gears? What would it mean to the living Earth? What would it mean to us?
I have heard that, years ago, the city of Los Angeles lost power, and darkness reigned, and frightened people called the police to report strange lights in the sky: the stars. We are far along the wrong path when we no longer recognize the stars, our billion-year-old companions in the night.
When the power comes back on, as it did tonight, it is a bitter transition for me. Yes, power does make life easier. It washes our clothes and our dishes. It provides our entertainment and our light. It prepares our food and offers heat. It powers the production of life-saving medicines and hospitals. But these benefits of the grid accrue only to the wealthy, to the first world. And power corrupts, too. For countless people, the coming of power is a disaster: displacement, genocide, privatization, proletarianization. The World Commission on Dams estimates that at least 40 to 80 million people have been displaced by hydroelectric dams alone — many of them Indigenous and poor.
Perhaps it is time for us to have no power again. And not just for a day or a week, but for as long as it takes for the salmon to come home, for the desert tortoises to reclaim their dens, for us to remember our place in the world.
I dream of standing on a hill above a vast metro-necropolis, and watching the lights go out in a wave, watching darkness reclaim her land, watching night return to life.
The salmon, the tortoises, and I — we will all be ready.
Featured image by Chris Richmond / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0