Lights out? [U]

I grew up in the Washington, DC area and in the first 20-something years of my life, I don’t remember the power going out. I vaguely remember it going out once—but I may be just giving Mother Nature the benefit of the doubt.

But then also, in those days when the most sophisticated electronics I had were a transister radio, and later, a stereo system, a TV, and a Smith-Corona typewriter, we weren’t as dependent on electricity, so maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal.

Then again, I’ve always been dependent on food, and I grew up with an electric stove. So….

But the real point of this post is that even if we could prevent 95 percent of the power outages in the DC metro area, I don’t think we would. If we had wanted to, we would have.

I moved back to the DC area from Houston in the waning days of 1995, and since then, my power, in a couple of different houses, has gone out at least four times. And when I’m talking about power outages, what I really mean are those outages that last significantly more than a few minutes or even two or three or five hours, but long enough to worry about the contents of your fridge turning into oozy glop.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve had in the DC area some of the most severe weather I can remember seeing around here. In the last two years alone, there have been at least two sustained power outages in my house (the derecho had me without power for four days), severe winds, berserk and apocalyptic thunderstorms, and an overall picture of weather gone wild.

So as I sit here trying to get work done before the wind kicks up to 50+mph and the lights go out, it’s hard not to wonder if there isn’t a climate change thing going on. And why we human beings are wired not to do anything about it.

Let Us Now Do Nothing

What strikes me as odd about the way we talk about climate change, or global warming, is  that you seem to be either a believer or a nonbeliever. If I get the arguments correctly, the former trusts the science and agrees that human beings share in the culpability. The latter either denies completely that the climate is changing, or disagrees that humans share any culpability.

Does it really matter whether humans share any culpability? It seems to matter to the nonbelievers—if we didn’t make the mess, we don’t have to clean it up. It shouldn’t. And it would seem as though that horse left the barn a long time ago. If I understand the science—which I don’t, really; the science is incredibly complex—then what we humans need to do is deal with it, which some forward-thinking organizations are doing.

And as it turns out, dealing with it—being less wasteful with energy—has huge benefits not just to businesses but to individuals. If I have to spend less on energy each month, that’s a huge thing for me. If businesses can do so as well, then that’s a huge thing for me, too. Costs stay down, which could lead to more jobs and lower prices.

But Let’s Forget About the Benefits of Doing Anything—Because We Will

Think of it this way: If you could accurately predict weather 10 years down the road (which, as far as I know, you can’t, but let’s just say there was a reasonably accurate [and maybe magical] model) and you could see that there was going to be a massive, ruinous drought in the Midwest if the country didn’t do X.

Let’s say X might cost $2 billion to do. A whole lot of money. But let’s say that this magical weather model showed that if we did nothing and allowed that drought to happen, the costs could approach $200 billion through devastated crops, lost jobs, degraded topsoil, and other potential collateral consequences.

Would we spend the $2 billion to prevent that $200 billion?

You’re Kidding Me, Right? No Way.

Sadly, given human nature, I’d bet that we would not. Why? Because it’s hard to show any benefit to a disaster diverted in the kinds of metrics that MBA types love. It’s hard to get riveting, galvanizing news footage of NO DISASTER. It’s hard or impossible for people to be moved or inspired by what appears to be nothing.

But let’s say we decided to spend that $2 billion, or even just half a billion and that turned out—over many years—to have major positive consequences, even if the predicted drought weren’t entirely diverted or prevented. Would the politician/s who decided to spend that money still be in office when the benefits of that action came to fruition?

Not likely. They probably would have been driven from office with pitchforks and torches long before the non-drought. Some opportunistic challenger would have accused them of wasting $2 billion on some kind of hocus pocus.

As a species, we seem to respond way more favorably to crises than to non-crises. We love them. And, as a species, we tend not to remember more than about 20 minutes ahead or behind us. (My dad used to ask me, when I’d inform him that my birthday was coming up, “How old are you?” and always seemed surprised. I do the same thing, the surprise thing—Where did all that time go?—but I remember my kids’ ages.)

This “model”—not the hypothetical climate model, but the model of humans taking no action until there’s a crisis—could be applied to a million different aspects of public life. We simply do not act until it’s either really, really late or too late.

We Can’t Avert the Storm, But We Could Have Averted the Crisis (Somewhat)

So, this week we have a major badass storm called Sandy getting ready to knock the lights out of most of the Mid-Atlantic region, and there will be news footage of power lines down, Anderson Cooper standing up to his chest in water (I feel like I can guarantee this) potentially millions of unhappy people without power whose tempers get shorter and shorter as the outages drag on for days. Millions will be spent on crews to clean up the damage, millions will be lost by the government and schools closed down. Most of this is because (I dimly believe) we insist on having power lines above ground.

I don’t have any clue what it would take the bury power lines, but I’ve lived in neighborhoods with buried power lines and the power simply doesn’t go out as often. But what if we did bury power lines? What if we, as a country, had made the decision 20 years ago, that all new construction had to have buried power lines, and that the power companies, in league with their customers, other stakeholders, and local governments, would share the cost of progressively burying power lines around the East Coast? (Not necessarily in rural areas.)

Do I think this will ever happen? No. The reason why is really simple. First let’s say that, for arguments’ sake, it would cost $20,000 per house in my neighborhood to bury power lines. (I have no idea what it would cost, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be cheap.) And then let’s say that each homeowner would have to foot half of that bill. And let’s say that I want more than anything for my power not to go out. Would I vote for that?

Heck no.

I can get a backup generator installed for about $5,000, and if I maintain it, it’ll last until I’m an older old guy. So I assure myself (I tell myself) that I am getting what I want—more or less uninterrupted electricity—at half the cost.

But would I really?


So a storm comes and power goes out and I’ve got my backup generator going and I run cords to all my neighbors that I can (because I’m a generous guy), and all is swell, yes? No. Likely, as happened during the derecho, the cell tower is out nearby, so there is no cell reception. The nearby grocery stores are closed because they have no power. Ditto the nearby gas stations and nail salons and restaurants. My Internet access is down because while I’m still up and running, my ISP is down, or the lines are down. There are trees down and roads are blocked by downed wires and would I still consider voting for it?

No. Don’t be silly. I’m a human being.

Tell me what you think. Seriously.