Tuesday, October 14, 2003

In Isabel's Wake

Hurricane Isabel brought me four days and nights without electricity that, now ended, prompt a few thoughts concerning the ethical issues, political, social and personal, that electric power and other conveniences common to the 21st century city pose to the first few billion humans trying to survive on this planet.

The political is personal, the women's movement has taught us, and here there is no exception. My first encounter with blackouts in a Latin American country linked the two. The power grid of the part of city in which I lived, I later learned, was no weaker, no less well cared for, than that of my native New York. The reason for my first and rather frightening encounters with candles and flashlights and stumbling in the dark, many nights at a time, was instead political.

The electric power unions were quarrelling with the military government's attempt to roll the socioeconomic order back to the 1940s, to put the genie of worker rights, then added to the constitution, back into the bottle. So they struck. Again and again. Each time they made sure they darkened the neighborhoods where high military officers, diplomats, executives and other professionals lived.

In the New York of the 1950s in which I had lived blackouts were unknown -- at least to me. Perhaps it was a function of living in Sutton Place, perhaps it was luck, perhaps -- as nostalgia sometimes suggests -- the United States really was different, the work ethic stronger, the managerial talents sharper and more equitable.

At least, clearly the latter. We have as president a lazy man who has spent his life squandering the privilege that came with the silver spoon in his mouth at birth. A man who takes month-long vacations in a country where they are rare, a man who is careless with facts, a man who knows no realities other than that of those whom he would like to think of as his peers -- oil entrepreneurs, military men, and others. He inherited surplus, he reigns over deficit as far as the eye can see. He inherited a carefully groomed global system of alliances -- he trashed them all to the point that our nation is feared as a dangerous, whimsical predator.

Is it any surprise, then, that the managers of electric power companies allowed the power grid of the capital of the most powerful nation in the world to rot until a strong wind came and blew it apart? Is it surprising that they paraded scores of trucks and personnel waiting in readiness to respond and took days to do what used to be accomplished in hours? There was a letter in the Washington Post from someone who lives in my neighborhood. Like my apartment building, he lost power at about 2:30 on Thursday, many hours before the hurricane struck.

This isn't a matter of whining, but of observing entropy in high places. Yes, I remember that two days after we have had electricity restored, some areas do not. More importantly, I know perfectly well that there are billions in the corrugated tin huts of "villa miserias" or "favelas" around the globe to whom electricity is something either stolen from a nearby pole -- or totally unknown.

The conveniences we take for granted in our 21st century modern cities -- New York, London, Hong Kong and the expanding clones in the USA -- are fragile and still quite the global luxury. Freezers and in them days of food enough to feed African villages are still quite unusual for most of humanity, let alone the electricity to support that style of living.

More to the point. To most Afghanis the idea of buildings tens of stories high -- let alone the notion of an airplane crashing into them -- is a sheer fantasy that has no parallel experience in their television-less lives.

For four days I lived a little like them. It was intolerably uncomfortable. I didn't know how to survive, how to amuse myself. I could not work on my computer. But, OK, I could get out and drive to areas with juice; I even drove to teach a class on computer hardware in an project designed to bridge the digital divide.

I have acquired a learned dependence on systems that are fragile and luxurious -- and I know how to bring at least a few others on board. Yet, can the planet sustain a whole world of countries operating at the level of consumption of Ohio?

For 25 years I lived without a television and without a car -- entirely by choice. This year, due to personal transformations irrelevant to this topic, I throttled those choices. I was amazed to have a color television. I was uncertain about parking lot etiquette at suburban malls to which I now had access by car, after years of walking to smaller stores in the city and buying only what my arms could carry.

Still, I thought I didn't take consumption as a given, that I hadn't become part of American normality -- until Isabel struck.

We have too much. We are dependent on fragile systems run by lazy and unscrupulous people. We are wasting resources to which we have no reasonable claim. We are failing to use our good fortune for the benefit of our entire global neighborhood. We are trapped.

Unless ... unless perhaps Isabel is like Queen Isabel of Spain, sending Christopher Columbus to America. The continent was not really a new world, it was not unpopulated, it was not even discovered. Yet to Columbus it was really new.

Perhaps there is a new way of thinking, living and politicking that can come from even just a little painless adversity.