The Bright Side of Blackouts

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D. In collaboration with Azzia Walker and Jennifer Zur

Article published during the 2001 “Energy Crisis” in CA in the Sonoma Valley Voice in 2001, April-June Issue, p. 10-11. Printed by permission.


I have been known to catch substantial flak for suggesting that Palestinians deserve their own homeland and that women share the responsibility for wars. Such flak, however, pales in comparison to the criticism I received when I shared my enthusiasm for the rolling blackouts in California in the Winter of 2000-2001. I was called a provocateur, anti-poor, anti-technology and worse.

During the holiday season of 2000, Governor Gray Davis rode in his large limousine for the first stretch of his gallant mission to Washington, DC in search of immediate help for California’s acute energy crisis.

The TV camera crews that covered this heroic event followed the nocturnal mission en-route to the San Francisco airport. They followed his entourage along the fully lit highway 101, across the beautifully glowing Golden Gate Bridge, passing brightly illuminated locked businesses, such as banks, office buildings, car lots and supermarkets along Nineteenth Avenue in the heart of San Francisco. Billions of Christmas lights provided the de-light-ful background for his departure. His bon voyage interview took place in front of the powerful lights of the TV cameras in the stark, neon atmosphere found only at airports.

I embrace this energy crisis and the ensuing rolling blackouts throughout our ‘Golden State’ for the following reasons:

The first reason for my support of the blackouts is that I hope that they put a dent in the most prevalent myth of our time, the myth that resources are unlimited. As soon as the crisis happened, California’s officials started borrowing, buying and demanding energy from neighboring states, such as Oregon and Washington and even from the more distant states of Arizona and Alaska. Warnings about potential harmful environmental or economic effects on these states if they were to help California were quickly dismissed as insignificant. The notion that a person or a government running out of money should go elsewhere on a quest for replenishment of finances rather than reduce its spending is as American as apple pie. For many years, millions of people living, for example, in Damascus and many other third-world metropolitan areas have become accustomed to having running water only at certain hours of the day. Most of the world’s people outside of the USA live with realistic understanding and experience with the finiteness of food, water, medicine, energy and ultimately even of life itself. This reality has yet to permeate the USA. My hope is that the rolling blackouts will teach us the simple but illusive lesson of limits.

The second reason I like the blackouts is that they may open for scrutiny the unexamined sense of entitlement of the Western World, and of California in particular. We are not only entitled to freedom, happiness and the right to bear arms, but also to bigger, faster and taller SUV’s regardless of their contribution to air pollution and global warming, depletion of energy sources, or the extensive damage they inflict in collisions. We are entitled to stay nice and cool in the summer and perfectly cozy in the winter. Without doubt we are entitled to the latest techno-gadgets, such as the most updated computer, latest applications, fast internet access, palm pilots and of course cell phones. Most of the rest of the world does not operate with such a sense of entitlement. Over half of the world’s people are grateful if they have a couple of meals a day and a roof over their heads. The tantrum-like quality of the public’s outrage at the rolling blackouts is a sheer manifestation of our deep unexamined sense of grandiose entitlement.

My third reason to bring on the blackouts arises out of my hope that they will encourage conservation and support accelerated development of alternative energies. Rather than buying more extremely expensive energy from neighboring states and countries, it may be a good idea to start a comprehensive conservation campaign. A simple way to begin is to make sure that all car dealers’ lots, banks, stores and office buildings turn their lights off after working hours. With the dimming of lights on bridges and highways, the move to conservation will be in full swing. Somehow the remarkable changes taking place in the weather worldwide which affect our daily lives and drive up power usage with increasingly extreme temperatures, are never factored into our energy policies. So rather than building dozens more power plants by year’s end (as is currently planned) which will exacerbate global warming, we could seriously and deliberately divert our resources towards the development of alternative energy. We have gone to the moon, mapped all of our human genes, and cloned animals, but still rely on fossil fuels, the most primitive, most polluting source of energy, for most of our energy needs. In an interesting twist, almost three months into the crisis, California’s officials have decided that conservation will not work unless consumers are given incentives and they are discussing allocating 1 billion dollars toward this effort, as if limits don’t speak for themselves.

The forth aspect of my attraction to the blackouts has to do with much needed occasional change in the pace of life. In our technological world we have gotten used to one speed: ‘Full speed ahead.’ We are obsessed with the fastest computers, cars, Internet connections, and of course fast food, Viagra, Starbucks, and all kinds of pills and drugs to help us obtain instant gratification. We frantically push the “CLOSE DOOR” button, the most worn out button in the elevator even though it has no effect on the door. We have surrounded ourselves with endless time saving techno-gadgets, such as palm pilots, instant messaging and cell phones just to find ourselves deprived of time. With TV’s, computers, most phones and play stations dead during blackouts, hopefully we are forced to shift from overdrive to a slower, saner gear. Blackouts can revitalize conversations and connections. Long blackouts may even introduce contemplation, prayer or meditation, while some busy parents may suddenly realize how tall their children have grown.

The fifth reason is that I hope blackouts will help bring about corporate accountability. PG&E, Edison and other utility companies in California have raked in billions of dollars in profit in recent years for their parent companies. But when the going gets tough they do not reach into the fat pockets of the well-rewarded shareholders or into the companies’ assets. They expect and demand that we consumers will pay for it, and the PUC agrees with them. When big corporations and banks suffered huge losses in the Savings and Loan crisis of the Eighties and the Far East financial collapse in the Nineties, no one asked them to bear the consequences of their investments either. And so it is with the California Utilities. It was nice to reap the profits themselves only to pass on the losses to the taxpayers. After all, through lobbying, soft money and Political Action Committees, big corporations determine who can afford a well-funded political campaign. And of course, the politician or elected official with the most toys wins the election and gets to vote on corporate bailouts. Perhaps the blackouts and the high utility rates will fuel enough public outrage to demand corporate and electorate accountability and campaign finance reform.

The sixth reason is born of my romantic nature. I have always read with great pleasure the statistics of hospital delivery rooms that are filled to overflowing, about nine months after any kind of a power blackout. In my imagination the blackouts not only turn the TV’s off, but also turn on beautiful candles and exotic oil lamps, family togetherness, conversations, romance and, apparently, sex.

As for me: Provocateur? Yes! Anti-poor? No! Anti-technology? Depends!

Article on speed, technology and soul

Copyright Zur, 2001

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