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!
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.
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.)
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.
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
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.
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?
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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
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
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.
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.
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!
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
By 6:30 p.m. our electricity was restored and all plans were off.
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.
Olga Bonfiglio is a Huffington Post contributor and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several magazines and newspapers on the subjects of food, social justice and religion. She (more...