Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

When the Lights Go Out

I’m currently house-sitting for friends in a small community while working on my book. Yesterday this entire town shut down following a hydro outage that began at seven in the morning and extended past midnight. High winds felled numerous trees in the area, which brought down power lines in multiple locations and blocked roadways. These photos were taken by a friend. The shed is in his backyard.

I spent the day expecting power to be restored at any moment, but 12 hours later it was time to dust off lanterns and locate extra blankets. Although my hot water heater no longer functioned, I’m fortunate that the kitchen stove is powered by natural gas and that the burners can be lit manually.

In the short term, my biggest concern was recharging my phone. Internet access had crashed a few minutes prior to the hydro, taking the VOIP-based telephone service with it. My iPhone was therefore my last remaining link to the larger world. As the sans electricity hours dragged on, I watched the battery indicator on the screen diminish and began contemplating the three diesel-powered generators within view (two connected to businesses and the other to a private home) with new interest.

Eventually, I found myself sitting in the driver’s seat of my friends’ car. It being a standard transmission, which I’ve never had occasion to learn how to drive, I’ve not paid that car the least attention, despite having spent many weeks at a time here over the past 18 months. The size of this community means that walking and cycling is more than sufficient. But there I was, inserting a key into the ignition, my phone charger plugged directly into a 115v socket on the dashboard, thanking the fates for small miracles.

A stroll down main street revealed that nearly everything was closed. The post office. The public library. The government licensing bureau. Neither medication nor flashlight batteries could be acquired from the locked and darkened pharmacy. The foot-long hotdog stand was shuttered. Even Tim Horton‘s – a Canadian coffee and donut icon affectionately known as Tim’s – had thrown in the towel. A convenience store was open but if, like me, you’d neglected to grab cash from a banking machine the previous evening, even milk was unattainable.

At dinnertime, I used the stovetop to fix myself the day’s first hot meal, observing that the entire affair was a great deal more bother, consumed far more energy, and dirtied twice as many dishes than usual. (On a normal day, I am Mistress of the Microwave.) Washing all those dishes will now also consume above-average amounts of hot water and detergent.

Temperature became a concern yesterday, from two directions. Indoors, the thermostat dropped to 17 C (63 F), before I began in earnest to explore how the supplementary baseboard heaters could be adjusted upward. On the other end of the spectrum, after 12 hours plus, the contents of one’s refrigerator begin to be a source of trepidation. Would those lovely, brown, hard-boiled eggs still be safe to eat?

As darkness approached the tone of concern in the telephone voices of my husband and aunt grew sharper. Safety is always a bit of an issue for a woman on her own. When communities are plunged into darkness, and when there’s an awareness that emergency personnel have already been stretched to the limit, we’re reminded that the security of our person is largely dependent on other people’s self-restraint.

While we’re on the subject of safety, Brenda Hazlewood, a friend who lives nearby, commented on Facebook this morning:

What a frightening drive back into town last night – trees uprooted, roofs blown off – roads blocked, forcing me to turn around and find a new route several times…When I went to bed last night, the only sound (besides wind) was generators humming all around the neighbourhood. I worried about basement flooding without the sump pump running…

She then thanked a third party for the loan of a radio that had kept her “in touch with the world.”

At no point yesterday did I become distressed. In my bones I’m a practical gal who learned early on that few things should be taken for granted. When I was a child in the 1960s my paternal grandparents had not yet acquired running water or a flush toilet. One of my earliest memories involves walking down the hill behind my grandmother’s house, watching her drop a bucket into the well, hearing it splash, observing her exertion as she pulled it up with a rope, and watching that hard-earned water slosh over the edge of the bucket as we made our way back up the hill.

No one needs to tell me, therefore, that it’s possible to live without modern conveniences. But I know how tough my grandparents’ lives were.

Newspaper editorial writers (see here) may think it would be good for the planet if we used less fuel and got used to paying higher prices for energy (which means, of course, paying higher prices for anything manufactured or transported). But even though the average person may never have considered the matter in a systematic way, and even though they might not be able to articulate it, folks know what that means.

An unstable energy supply, or an energy supply that is difficult for ordinary people to afford, translates into a lower level of food safety and a lower level of public safety. I lit no candles last night, but those who did exposed their families to an increased risk of fire at a time when emergency crews were already over-burdened.

Greens think our entire energy supply chain needs to be re-thought. I’m sure there’s always room for improvement. But when the lights go out, ordinary people do not sit in the dark and repent their environmental sins. Those fortunate enough to have access to gas-powered generators set them up, plug in the refrigerators that contain their insulin, and continue caring for newborns, cancer patients, and elderly parents.

Generators aren’t quite as loud or as annoying as leaf-blowers. But trust me, they’re in the same territory. As this new day blooms I’m looking forward to the last of them falling silent.

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photographs courtesy of Kubb Miller

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This entry was posted on April 29, 2011 by in ethical & philosophical, historical perspective and tagged .
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