Southwestern Michigan caught winter’s blast last week. In my town the power went out and we were left to our own devices to stay warm and well-fed for at least 24 hours. For some people it was three to five days before they were back to normal!
It’s not nice to lose power in the coldest month of the year, especially when you’re sick of snow, ice, heavy coats and that frozen bleakness that makes you feel as though winter will never end. It’s been 35 years since I’ve had to live through a power outage but this one gave me an opportunity to consider some new meaning in the value of energy and its effect on life both at home and in my community.
My husband and I were somewhat prepared for the loss of heat when the power blinked off at 11:30 on Sunday night. We had resolved for the second winter in a row to do without heat as much as we could stand it. We turn the furnace off before going to bed and charge it up for an hour or two in the morning and maybe one or two more times during the day. (We work at home.)
Instead of warming up our entire house, we warm up ourselves. Blankets come in mighty handy and it has become imminently clear to me why the frontier Native Americans made blankets as an object of trade. We also learned that taking in warm liquids, meat and carbohydrates also helps us to stay warm even though our craving for fresh fruits and vegetables is severely heightened by mid-winter.
Our townhouse, which is connected to neighbors on both sides, doesn’t usually go below 58 degrees except on extremely cold days. To stay warm, we use efficient space heaters in the room we are occupying and a vaporizer in our bedroom at night—along with piles of warm blankets. I’ve also discovered that covering my head with a hat during the day or a sheet at night when I retire conserves a lot of body heat. Now I know why those nineteenth century period films usually show people wearing night caps!
My husband and I have tried this experiment, as we do so many things these days, to ready ourselves for peak oil—a time when we expect energy prices to be so exorbitant we will need to keep the furnace off most of the time—an unhappy prospect for living in Michigan. What’s making this prospect more apparent is that even though we use our energy more judiciously, our heat and light bills are at least 20 percent higher than they were five years ago.
The power outage also revealed to me how habit forming access to electricity can be. Even as I held a flashlight or a candle in one hand, the other one automatically flipped on a light switch whenever I entered a room. How incredibly foolish! And yet, how perfectly normal to rely on piped-in power. Truth is, as conscious as we are about energy, we still take electricity for granted. After all, we’ve never lived a day in our lives when we were without electricity. How can we imagine anything different?
Sometimes our assumption of the availability of energy got seriously in the way, like when we tried to open the garage to take out the car but couldn’t because we have an electric garage door opener. I grew up without garage door openers quite well, but the convenience of opening the door without having to get out of the car is wonderful, particularly in winter or on rainy days. Such conveniences are one of the trappings of middle class life, which attempts to make our things easier for us through the burning of fossil fuels. In reality, they are an unnecessary extravagance that attempt to let us think we are among the privileged.
But the ice storm provided another object lesson. I had a medical procedure scheduled that I couldn’t break, especially since I had fasted two days in preparation for it. I needed a car to get to the doctor’s office but couldn’t get into the garage. I had to ask my neighbor for help.
Asking for help is a difficult thing. Everything in our culture teaches us to be independent and self-sufficient. Anything less is seen as weakness or sponging off others. Cheap energy plays into this mindset as we trade off our own muscle and need for help from others to allow machines do much of our work for us. The ice storm helped me realize that one of the unintended consequences of cheap energy is that it has separated us from each other. It has made us less dependent on community with the idea that we can go it alone in the world—until we can’t.
It turned out that my neighbor was not only able to help me, she was delighted to do it. She was even willing to brave the icy roads, downed power lines and fallen trees. Then she stayed with me during the procedure and was more than prepared to do so because she had a book in her purse and a cup of coffee in her hand.
Meanwhile, my other neighbor, who happens to be the organizer in our group of townhouses, was already at work figuring out how our neighborhood would get through the blackout. As she stood before her fireplace, she spun out a plan to use the gas stoves in various people’s homes to cook food. Concerned about the thawing meat in our freezers, we joined her in a bit of spontaneous meal planning that had a party-like flavor to it. It sounded like fun and it would make an unusual addition to our other get-togethers of summer pot luck picnics, the Super Bowl, and occasional goddess gatherings (women-only wine and cheese parties). I was anticipating the excitement of it all!
Then I had to face the question of what to do during the day where computers, the Internet and TVs couldn’t run. I suddenly recognized that I was dependent on the light of the sun to read books, write in my journal, or just sit and look at the beautiful woods in my backyard with their glistening tree branches and quiet snow. I gradually became more contemplative and content with the unusual silence, a deep and almost deafening silence.
By 6:30 p.m. our electricity was restored and all plans were off.
To live in this world where energy comes readily and relatively cheaply means that it takes a lot of arm wrestling with our culture where we have to push away or at least reduce our dependence on the conveniences and distractions that dominate our lives. We also have to realize that whether we like it or not, we live in this world with other people. In fact, our access to energy actually isolates us and prevents us from enjoying life together as a family or as a community. We have effectively sacrificed these things and, I think, made ourselves hungry to bond and thirsty to be entertained. In the process we feel depressed, angry and sullen.
Maybe peak oil will help us re-establish our need for one another.