When The Lights Go Out

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

6 thoughts on “When The Lights Go Out”

  1. Max’s article stirred many random thoughts in my head, and three in particular:

    (1) Poland, as I heard last night, gets 83% of its electricity from coal. And yet our so-called president backed out of the hopelessly inadequate and ignorant Paris climate accords, because it would render America unable to compete with the Polands and Indias of the world.

    (2) The simple solution to the problem of civilization is neither to want nor to acquire anything our great-great grandparents never heard of and never missed — things like SUVs, air travel, air conditioning, Chilean produce in the winter, or the cell phone in my hand (which even I never heard of or considered indispensable, 30 years ago).

    (3) The whole notion of human “dominion over the earth” derives from the most catastrophic error in the annals of human thought. Our ancestors, 3000 or so years ago, looked at the night sky, and observed that everything appears to revolve around us. Therefore, our solar system must be the universe, and our earth must be at its center. And as the dominant species on our planet, we must be the focal point of all existence. Thus, the universe is ours, to transform into whatever we can imagine.

    In reality, our solar system is but one among the billions, in a galaxy that is one among the billions. Even at the speed of sound, a mere journey to the sun would take 16 years, and a voyage across the orbit of Neptune would require 1100 years. And yet our earth (not really “ours,” any more than the Inca empire was Spanish, or Hawaii American) is to the known universe as a single speck of dust is to the solar system.

    Our religions derive from people who believed we were given the earth by the creator of the universe, which to them was our solar system. In other words, we were given the earth by the sun god, while to any god of the REAL universe, we would be as insignificant as a single bacteria on the slopes of Mt. Everest might be to a lobster off the coast of Maine.

    If our world were vaporized today, no one else in the universe would know or care. We would never be missed. And yet we and our insignificant world are all we have. It is all the lobsters have, and all that the bacteria have. And by any real measure, we are no more important than they are.

    When my father arrived in Berlin in 1945, the city was occupied by Soviet troops. A soldier from Siberia came into the store where my father (a German-American translator) was talking with the shopkeeper. And at gunpoint, the soldier demanded the shopkeeper give him the faucet above his sink, so that water might come out of his wall back in Siberia, too.

    We, with our “dominionist” beliefs, are just as ignorant of ultimate reality as that poor soldier. And yet we presume the right to destroy any or all members of any species — lobster, bacteria, hawk, or horse — so that electricity and water might flow out of every wall on earth.

    Think about it.

  2. As a woman facing collapse, I’m terrified of the power permanently going out. Here’s what I know will happen:
    – Mothers will still have to care for children, elderly parents and the sick when it’s night while fearing for their own safety as men roam in gangs raping and pillaging and exploiting as they’ve always done
    – Women in each household will still be expected to prepare food, create and clean clothes, provide heat and shelter, tend to the emotional well-being of their families
    – Women will no longer have access to the birth control that enables them to avoid unwanted pregnancy
    – Women who do get pregnant will have little skill or knowledge about how to care for themselves in the absence of doctors and hospitals. Midwives will be scarce.
    – Women will start dying in childbirth in massive numbers due to complications and lack of antibiotics care or another other reproductive care
    – Women will have to experience childbirth without pain medication. They and their babies will die horrible deaths
    – Women will no longer have a voice in politics. There will be far too much work to do taking care of their families. The men in the community will abandon their responsibilities as fathers and husbands as they currently do now when it gets too difficult.
    – Women will starve, as will their children because they won’t have the skill, knowledge or resources to grow their own food

    I could go on, but you get the idea. There will be absolutely nothing pleasant about being a woman when the lights go out permanently because many (most?) men today, as porn clearly demonstrates, have no sense of community or filial connection to women as a class, even if they do care for individual women.

    So, I’m happy that you have a dream that comforts you. I honestly wish that I could share that dream. I can’t. I’m far too aware of how precarious women’s circumstances are. I’ve lived in a household with a father/husband who was violent, abusive, a pedophile. Nobody spoke for her. Ever. She had to make her way on her own with five children. To this day, I don’t know how she survived. Women would likely be expected to survive without the support of men at all. Whatever humanity they once had as a member of the species of humanity that evolved to this day is being stripped away by patriarchy, religion and capitalism.

    As we speak, whatever rights women currently fought and died for are being relentlessly peeled away. Women can fight and we will. But what we can’t do collectively is fight men indefinitely if they’re not willing or able to see and treat women as equals, as human beings. We can’t fight while we bear the responsibility of bringing future generations into the world. Men have had it easier now more than ever in our history to do the right thing, to learn how to connect with women in their communities and deepen their spirituality, awareness and humanity. And yet, even as women cry out for men to recognize women’s humanity, they continue to torture and murder women around the globe and it’s accelerating. The saddest thing of all? They absolutely feel entitled to do this.

    I have a daughter, granddaughter and a son. I lay awake at night unable to bear the thought of the suffering they’re going to experience. The load of guilt I feel is absolutely crushing. Most of the time I numb out so I can function. I’ve survived two bouts of cancer, collisions and many other traumas so that I could learn what I need to know to be there for them. So, that I could fight for them when the time comes. If the power goes out, I just cannot imagine that I’d be able to save them. This thought is my worst nightmare.

    I know you’re doing far more than most men, Max. I applaud you for everything you are doing. But I have lost faith in men’s collective ability to do what it takes to ensure this planet does not become a hellish dystopia not only for women, but for other men. I will do what I can. You will do what you can. It won’t be enough.

  3. Thanks for your passionate and provocative comment on this piece. I found what Mr Wilbert wrote to be thoughtless and narrow. To state, as he did, that healthcare powered by the electrical grid is only for the wealthy is untrue. Here in the UK where we have at least a semblance of socialised medicine in our NHS, it’s available 24/7 for everyone, even non-citizens, even irregular migrants. It relies on stable power supplies through the National Grid. Perhaps if the writer were lying inside an MRI scanner (constructed of oil-based plastics and many other extracted materials) for a suspected brain tumour when the power went off, he might have more insight.

  4. The point is that the grid and all the other trappings of industrial society — though VERY convenient — are neither sustainable nor necessary, for a humanity living in balance with nature.

    In the last 120 years, we’ve gone from 1.6 to 7.6 billion people, while our per capita use of raw materials has climbed from 4.4 to 9.6 tons per year. Meanwhile, we’ve destroyed a third of our farm land in just 4 decades, and brought most of our aquifers to the verge of collapse, due to commercial farming.

    Sometime in this century, billions of people are going to die from starvation or resource wars, whether Max pulls the plug or not. This is the reality of a growth-dependent culture, when the pyramid scheme of capitalism crashes.

    The bottom line is that we either learn to adapt to nature, as our ancestors lived, or we die. And life without washing machines, TVs, and processed foods can’t be that bad, or the tribal people who lived in harmony with nature wouldn’t have called it “paradise.”

  5. @SRH
    Very good point. I think US-Americans tend to think like that in part because there’s no free healthcare in the US.

  6. @Mark E Behrend: “Sometime in this century, billions of people are going to die from starvation or resource wars” – is that really going to happen, or are you using the worst-case scenario to provide you with a reason to argue for the most extreme response?

    “the tribal people who lived in harmony with nature” – there weren’t 7.5 billion of them. Humanity seems to have painted itself into a corner by adopting agriculture and civilisation. Traditional Indigenous lifestyles cannot possibly support anything close to that number. What are we going to do? The dreadful result of the 2019 election in the UK shows that almost everyone is simply ignoring climate change and hoping for the best. November 2020 will see the reelection of Donald Trump or a centrist Democrat in the USA, providing further evidence of this tendency. While I don’t see the Apocalypse coming as soon as you do, it’s plain that few people seem to have realistic ideas for mitigating it while not just turning off the power, as the author of this piece wants. I don’t know, either. Do you?

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