The power is out and won’t be back for awhile. That’s what the guys in the hard hats tell me, down where they’re working, at the intersection where our dead-end street is born. Many trucks are gathered there, with bright night-work lights illuminating whatever went wrong with the day’s power pole replacement job. The notices they left on our doors said they’d be done by five, but now it’s eight and I’m sitting in a house lit by candles, working on the nth draft of a writing assignment, in the absence of a steady flow of electrons off the power grid. Also in the absence of connection except to the physical world alone. Connectivity = 0. My laptop is good for another four hours or so, but without a connection I lack the building materials I need for constructing the piece. So I’m writing this instead.
Some other utilities are unaffected by the power outage, of course. I have matches, and can fire up the gas stove. Water runs, cold and cold. It also drips out of the little motel-grade refrigerator upstairs, defrosting itself into towels I’ve fed under it. The freezer in the kitchen remains closed, to keep whatever is in there from thawing and requiring use in the next couple days. What I’m witnessing is a gradual breakdown that is easy to imagine accelerating fast, especially if I was coping instead with a wildfire or an earthquake.
Three interesting facts about California and the people who — like me — choose to live here:
- The state tree is the California redwood. What made these things evolve into groves of spires with thick bark, standing at heights beyond three hundred feet, with branches in mature specimens that commence a hundred or more feet above the ground. I say they are adapted to fire. A cross section of a mature redwood will feature black edges to rings spaced thirty, fifty, two hundred apart, all marking survival of wildfire at a single location.
- The state flower is the California poppy. Here is what makes poppies thrive in dry rocky soils that are poor for agriculture but rich with freshly exposed minerals: they are adapted to earthquakes. More than any other state, except maybe Alaska, California is a product of recent earth movement. Imagine looking at the southern Appalachians in the U.S. or the Blue Mountains of Australia, two million years ago. It’s not hard: they would pretty much like they do now. If you looked at the site of the future California from anywhere two million years ago, you would recognize nothing, unless you were a geologist who knew what to look for. All of California has been raised up or ferried in by tectonic forces that have been working at full throttle for a couple hundred million years, and aren’t moving any slower today.
- Neither of those facts teaches caution to human beings who choose to live here. For example, the home where I write this, in Santa Barbara, has been approached, unsuccessfully, by two wildfires in recent years. The Tea Fire in November 2008 burned 210 homes and the Jesusita Fire in May 2009 burned other 80 more. The Tea Fire came straight at us, incinerating everything but rocks and soil for a mile in its path before stopping a quarter mile and ten houses short of where I’m sitting right now. (Here is my report on the aftermath.) The Coyote Fire in September 1964 burned the same area, and much more. The Sycamore Fire in 1979 came even closer, burning houses just up the street from here.
“We live in the age of full convenience,” John Updike wrote, at a time when it made sense to think copiers and fax machines marked some kind of end state.* But the lessons that matter at the moment arise from the absence of the two most essential utilities in my life, and probably yours too: the electric grid and the data network. (Yes, I can get on the Net by tethering my laptop to my mobile phone, but both use batteries that will run out, and the phone is down below 20% already anyway.) So here are three lessons that come to me, here in the dark, all of which we are sure to continue ignoring::::
- Civilization is thin. A veneer. Under it nature remains vast, violent and provisional. In the long run, which may end at any time for any of us, nature will prove no easier to tame than the tides. For three great perspectives on this, I highly recommend John McPhee‘s The Control of Nature. The title is taken from a plea to students, carved into sandstone over the door of a building at the University of Wyoming in Laramie: STRIVE ON — THE CONTROL OF NATVRE IS WON, NOT GIVEN. (I also recommend this blog post, by Themon The Bard, who went to UW and provides a photo.) Its chapters are “Iceland versus the volcanoes,” “Los Angeles versus the San Gabriel Mountains” and “The Army Corps of Engineers versus the Mississippi River.” The New Yorker re-ran a set piece from the third of those, right after Hurricane Katrina, which produced what New Orleans natives call “The Flood.” In it McPhee describes what would happen to New Orleans when a levee is breached. Here is the original, published years before reality certified true McPhee’s prophesy.
- Humanity is insane. A good working definition of psychosis is disconnection of the mind from reality. As a species we have proven ourselves nuts for the duration, as the examples above attest. Present company included. (Further proof: war, genocide.) It should be clear by now that humanity is not merely at the top of the food chain around the world, but a pestilence to everything God (or whatever) put in position to be exploited in the short term, regardless of the obvious fact that it took approximately forever to put those resources in place, and how much of it cannot be replaced. While it’s true that in the very long run (a billion years or few), the aging Sun will cook the planet anyway, we are doing our best to get the job done in the geologic present. This is why many geologists propose renaming our current epoch “Anthropocene.” Bonus question: Why do political conservatives care so little about the long-term conservation of resources that are, undeniably, in limited supply and are clearly bound for exhaustion at any consumption rate? Before categorizing me, please note that I am a registered independent, and in sympathy with economic conservatives in a number of ways (for example, I do like, appreciate and understand how the market works, and in general I favor smaller government). But on environmental issues I’m with those who give a shit. Most of them happen to be liberals (or, in the current vernacular, progressives). George Lakoff provides some answers here (and in several books). But, while I love George, and while he has probably influenced my thinking more than any other human being, it still baffles that opposing conservation of resources fails to seem oxymoronic to most avowed conservatives.
- The end is in sight. Somewhere I’ve kept a newspaper story that did a great job of listing all the resources our species is bound to use up, at current rates of exploitation, and how long that will take. On the list were not only the obvious “reserves,” such like oil, gas, coal and uranium, but other stuff as well: helium, lithium, platinum, thorium, tungsten, neodymium, dysprosium, niobium… stuff we use to make stuff that ranges from balloons to hard drives to hybrid car engines. Many of the heavier elements appear to have been deposited here during bombardments by asteroids several billion years ago, when the Earth has hard enough not to absorb them. Helium, one of the most abundant elements in the universe, is produced on Earth mostly by decay of radioactive elements in certain kinds of natural gas. Much of the world’s helium comes from the ground here in the U.S., where our enlightened congresspeople decided a few decades back to hand the reserves over to private industry, where “the market” would decide best how it would be used. So, naturally, we are due to run out of it within maybe a couple dozen years, and have not yet found a way to replace it. Read on.
[Later…] I wrote this three nights ago, but didn’t put it up until now because I was already way overdue on the writing assignment I mentioned up top, and I had to deal with other pressing obligations as well. So I just went through the post, copy-edited it a bit and added some links.
* Special thanks goes to anybody who can find the original quote. I’ve used it so often on the Web that I’ve effectively spammed search results with unintended SEO. The closest thing I can find is this from Google Books, which fails to contain the searched-for nugget, but still demonstrates why Updike’s criticism earns the same high rank as his fiction.