Sunday, March 23, 2008

Power Wimps

There are a lot of things those of us who live in "developed countries" take for granted: clean water comes out of the tap when you turn it on. The car starts when you turn the key (well, most of the time, anyhow). Your trash gets picked up and hauled away somewhere on a regular basis. And the lights go on when you throw the switch.

I thought about the last one several times recently.

I was at home a few days ago when the lights flickered, brightened, and suddenly went out...we'd had a power failure. No PC (well, Mac, in my case). No clocks. No cordless phones. No stove, oven, or microwave. No powered garage door opener. Nada, zip, nothing.

I was annoyed, but not particularly inconvenienced. The weather was nice, so I'd planned to work in the yard anyhow, and it was fairly early in the morning, so I didn't have to worry about cooking anything. And the juice came back on within an hour, so it wasn't a major catastrophe.

But, as people in New Orleans, New York, and other places that have suffered extended loss of power can tell you, once you've gone a few days without electricity you've got trouble: the stuff in your freezer melts, the perishables in the refrigerator go south on you, you sweat miserably in the summer (no air conditioning) and freeze in the winter (no heat). Your cordless phones don't work. You can't surf the internet (or blog...gasp!). No video games for the kids. And so on.

We've become power wimps.

Much of our modern society is heavily dependent on the availability of cheap, reliable electricity to keep all our conveniences, and many of our necessities, going. When that power goes out - as it did for a few minutes the other day, and for weeks in some areas hit by hurricane Katrina, many people have a tough time coping.

The longest time we've ever been without power here in Northern Virginia was about three days. This was a few years ago when hurricane Isabella came through and zapped us. We'd stocked up on candles, laid in a supply of drinking water, and had plenty of charcoal for the barbecue, so we managed well for the few days of relative inconvenience. But what happens when the power goes out for longer periods? Or forever?

The other thing that got me to thinking about this was a blurb in Uncle John's Fast-Acting, Long-Lasting Bathroom Reader (yes, that's the real title) about things that used to be really important, but have since vanished. At the top of the list was card catalogs in the library. If you're my age or a bit younger, you grew up with libraries that had vast rows of deep, narrow drawers filled with the cards that identified each and every book in the library, giving you the title, author, subject, and Dewey Decimal Number to enable you to find it in the stacks. Most libraries had three such files: one for titles, one for authors, and one for subjects...making the card catalogs of major libraries pretty massive.

Nowadays, of course, there are no more card catalogs. Libraries keep their catalogs on computers that allow you to sit at a terminal, poke in the key words, and in seconds get the list of books you want. No more searching endless rows of drawers and thumbing through dozens of cards to find the one you want.

But what happens when there's no power? How do you find your book? Libraries don't keep backup indexes on cards any room.

As with so many other of our modern conveniences that we take for granted, we don't have a "Plan B" that lets us figure out how to cope when those conveniences are taken away. Some are easy enough to plan for: keep a few days supply of bottled water on hand, have a stockpile of canned and dried foods, and always have a few boxes of candles and a battery-powered radio. But can we cope with the long-term loss of the things that were once conveniences, but are now necessities? I could probably remember how to hunt and trap game if I got hungry enough, but I wouldn't know how to properly skin and gut anything I'd catch...and that makes me marginally better off than everyone who has never hunted in their lives, and doesn't realize that herds of cattle in their natural state aren't cut into chunks and shrink-wrapped.

Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 got many people thinking about this, if only for a little while. But we're modern, civilized people, and we've become power wimps because the power always comes on when you throw the switch.

Except when it doesn't. And then you've got a problem.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Amanda said...

This is a great post. We should all think about this more.

Its coincidental that my mother and I were just talking about something similar yesterday. We have become so reliant on communication via the internet that if there was ever a major worldwide catastrophe (maybe a permanent power failure) we would have a hard time finding our family and friends. Many people rely on email addresses these days and don't keep hard copies of their actual home addresses. Its the same with phone numbers. And, because of the internet, I think communities are no longer as close and do not know each other as well. So, we may seriously have problems re-establishing contact with our families when disasters strike. Maybe even a harder time than in the past during the world wars because families are now more dispersed and also because your neighbors may not know (or care) enough about you.

Sorry for the long comment. Like John said, I shouldn't have just made it a post on my own blog :)

The Mistress of the Dark said...

Very true.

Happy Easter btw :)

Jean-Luc Picard said...

We really are too dependant on electricity. When the power goes down, there are so many things to look out for.

Mike said...

"Your cordless phones don't work."

Ah, a favorite subject for an old telephoneman. You should always have at least one old telephone hooked up in the house in case of a power failure. One that doesn't need AC power and has an old ringer that works from telco ringing power. A "corded phone" for those kiddies out there.