What will you do when the lights go out (again)?

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An unusually early snowstorm in the Northeastern U.S. left three million people without electricity for up to ten days at the end of October.  While some deaths were reported (mostly caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from using gas stoves, generators, and even charcoal grills indoors), for most of us it proved to be a week of inconvenience and discomfort.

The local newspapers covered the storm extensively, sharing stories about long lines at the fast food restaurants, people hanging out at coffee shops to get internet and stay warm, and many showing up at the library or other public buildings to charge their cell phones.  Letters to the editor criticized the electric companies for ill-preparedness and politicians promised to investigate the situation!  Lots of people seemed pretty angry about the disruption in electrical power (something that is relatively common in much of the world).

A story nobody covered however happened in my basement, where neighbors gathered each evening for dinner cooked on the wood stove.   As someone who teaches classes on sustainability, I figure I need to be somewhat prepared for “the end of civilization.” 

Okay, so this is bit of an overstatement (I hope), but I do think everything we consider normal (plentiful food in the stores, lights that turn on at the flick of a switch, and ready supplies of fuel – just to name a few) will come to an end someday.   Why you ask?  Well, lets consider;

  1. Peak oil – If something can run out….. it will run out.  Easily accessible fossil fuel is an energy resource of the past.  And we are not doing much to develop alternatives, are we?   Well, are we?
  2. Global climate change – I don’t know about you – but it hardly seems “normal” when my home state of Massachusetts experiences a hurricane, a tornado, tremors from an earthquake, and a major October snow storm in the same year.  Something is up…..
  3. Economic stress – I guess you read the newspapers too.

So, yes….. I think we are experiencing a “new normal” in which power outages, fuel shortages and periods in which some foods won’t be available will be more commonplace.  I don’t know when……..   but if the lights can go out…. well, they will go out.

And, yes….. I confess to have done a little work in preparation for time when the electricity might shut off for a few days.  Over the past few years, my wife and I (okay, mostly me… she thinks I’m a little nuts) have invested in:

  • A big garden
  • Solar hot water
  • A wood stove
  • An alcohol cook stove
  • A small generator
  • Oil lamps
  • Efficient hand-cranked flash lights
  • A water filter and rain barrel
  • A chain saw
  • A portable toilet
  • And chickens….. yes, we have fresh eggs when the stores are closed

I’m not a survivalist nut…. no, really.  But I think a little preparation might be good practice for the day when power outages are part of everyday living.

So, what happened when the lights went out at my house?

Well, we weren’t prepared for a snow storm in October.  One of the things you need to run a generator is gasoline.  When the lights went out, I went out to the garage, pulled out the generator and realized we didn’t have enough gasoline to get through the night.  Undaunted we went around the neighborhood and siphoned gasoline (with permission) from lawnmowers that wouldn’t be used until next summer.  We had lights!

The generator provided just enough electricity to keep the freezer (with 25 frozen chickens we had raised in our backyard last summer) humming along.  The refrigerator was next and then a few lamps to read by.  We spent a quiet evening by the wood stove sipping tea we warmed on our alcohol stove.  And we woke to a world in which tree limbs were everywhere and power lines lay on the ground.  It didn’t look good.

The first neighbor who showed up had heard the generator and asked to put a few things in our freezer.  The next neighbor wanted to take a shower (the sun was shining and the solar system was making hot water).  And then folks began stopping by  just to get warm and charge their cell phones.

For most people, the week in the dark began as a bit of an adventure and turned into a depressing and cold week….. well, everywhere except in our basement.  There we had food (salvaged from thawing freezers in the neighborhood), hot coffee and tea, and good conversation.  My wife served breakfast each morning of local (from our backyard) eggs.  A few family members and neighbors spent the night.  I got some help removing tree limbs from the yard.  We even provided internet service (I have no idea why it was working).  My wife and I enjoyed being able to help a few friends simply be a bit more comfortable.

And then the lights came back on!

So, what did we learn?

Well, perhaps a few more of us might want to be prepared for the next time the lights go out.  That’s pretty obvious. You can start with any of the items on the list above.

But what about the deeper meaning?  For me, it was about neighborliness.  I believe we have a yearning for community.  Bill McKibbon, in his book, Deep Economy, wrote “if you are a poor person in China you have plenty of friends and family around all the time.”   But this is not true for the average suburban homeowner in the western world.  For the suburbanite he wrote, “….adding a new friend is a big deal.”  We lack human connections. Frankly, I really liked having friends and neighbors stopping in, unannounced.  Nobody has stopped by since the lights came back on.  I miss them.

What else?  I noticed how difficult it was for people to ask for help.  We need to work on this.  Hyper-individualism will literally kill us if we don’t learn to depend more on each other.  My thing is food.  I grow way too many vegetables.  In the summer, I like to put the extras out in front of the house  for anyone walking by to take.   I also enjoy helping people get started raising hens (for the eggs of course).  And we give away lots of eggs.

But this is only a beginning.  Maybe we should start practicing asking for help before the lights go out again.  And how about sharing a snowblower among a few families?  Do we all need a 40 foot extension ladder?   But sharing tools is the easy part – its difficult to borrow a ladder when you don’t know your neighbor’s first name.

Last fall I joined with a group of neighbors to read  Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition.”   Caroline Baker suggests that to be prepared for the pain and confusion of the coming crisis, we might want to try to become better practiced at dealing with despair.  She suggests a few tools such as mindfulness meditation, story telling, and “inflicting joy” on each other.   At least we might want to get to know our neighbors a little better.  When things get really bad, it won’t be enough to be able to siphon a little gas from your neighbor’s lawnmower.

As the impact of peak oil, climate change and economic stress accelerate, we may learn that growing food, finding clean water, and providing heat will be among the easier transitions.  More difficult perhaps may be learning to communicate effectively while we are hungry and cold, to barter and trade with our neighbors, and to support each other as all the things we take for granted today slowly disappear.

Thomas Malthus wrote in 1798 “the mighty law of self-preservation expels all the softer and more exalted emotions of the soul.”  He predicted chaos in response to what he called “…the chilling breath of want.”   I suspect he is right.  If we are to survive the coming chaos, we’ll need to prepare both our homes and gardens as well as our souls for a new and much harsher world.  But perhaps in the pain and despair, we’ll rediscover what it means to be a human being again, living in community.

 So what will you do when the lights go out (again)?

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.