Away From It All

A Blackout Letter From an Absent Friend, Friday, August 15

Heartening as they are to read, human-interest stories aren't the real story of the blackout, a story that's as meaningful to me, sitting here in the Berkshires, pondering what the cheese in my leaky Manhattan refrigerator will look like when I get back next week, as it is to you, sweltering in the city, wondering if you should risk turning on the TV and the electric fan at the same time, or whether you ought to boil the tap water before drinking, like your cousins in Cleveland—which isn't easy when you can't light the burner or switch on the microwave. The real story of the blackout is the ultimate human-interest story: It's the story of how we live, and what's going to happen to us if we don't rethink the way we live. This is the story of a civilization that built higher and higher, cut down more and more trees, and needed more and more energy to light and cool its higher and higher buildings as the weather grew hotter and hotter. It's the story of a civilization that marketed machines powered by electricity to do everything, even displacing the bulk of its person-to-person contacts onto telephones, and the bulk of its public entertainments from live self-amplified human experiences to electrified events, preserved electronically on reels of celluloid, tapes, and discs, run by machines that require more electrical power. It transferred the majority of its transportation requirements from ecologically viable and pleasant horse-wagons or boats to gasoline-powered vehicles, but now that the civilization's cracking up, you can't even get in your car and drive away from it, for gas pumps work by electricity too, and where the power grid's out it's out.


More Blackout Coverage:

"Mondo Washington: Why the Public Is Powerless" by James Ridgeway

"Pataki: New York's Prince of Darkness" by Wayne Barrett

"Press Clips: It's Deregulation, Stupid" by Cynthia Cotts

"Fly Life: How the Blackout Made New York Nightlife Fun Again" by Tricia Romano

What the blackout will have done to our economy, I don't want to imagine. How it will alter our politics is still an open question. But it'll be interesting, next summer, to watch the Republican convention assemble, in the most energy-vulnerable city in the world, to renominate a president who still won't admit global warming's a reality, and a vice president who still won't release the minutes of his energy-policy consultations with the rich slobs who feed off our energy dependence. Memories of the crisis will have some bearing, too, on another human-interest story tied to our economic future, the battle over New York City bonds between our relatively sane mayor and our useless, obstructionist governor—who's currently busy, as usual, skittering around looking for somebody to blame, instead of trying to find practical remedies. His reluctance is understandable: The remedies will be painful, unlike the happy resolutions of human-interest stories. Buildings will have to be built differently; goods will have to be transported differently. Human beings will have to find different, safer, and earth-friendlier sources for the electricity that now sustains even the most isolated lives and the most exotically distant nations. (Who knew, until terrorists blew one up, that there were dance clubs on Bali?) That's the worst of this story for me, out here in a tiny country town, remote from the crisis and knowing people affected by it everywhere. This quintessential New York story, which is also Detroit's and Toronto's and Cleveland's story, is everybody else's story too, because we've taught the whole world to live in our nonsustainable, planet-destroying way: As on 9-11, but for very different reasons, today we are all New Yorkers.

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