Your energy wake-up call

I was on the BBC Newshour this afternoon, talking about
America's excessive expectations about energy. Here are some
passing thoughts on the experience of the past couple of days.

As people in positions of authority try to track down the sources
of the great power blackout of August 14, 2003, it’s fascinating
to follow what’s being floated.

On the one hand we’re being told that nobody knows what caused
the power blackout affecting 50 million people. On the other hand
we’re assured that terrorism was definitely not a factor in the problem.
I take this to be a test of our ability to hold two contradictory ideas in
mind at the same time without having a nervous breakdown.

I’m also impressed by the fact that American politicians, including
Mayor Bloomberg, have identified the haywire as located somewhere
in Canada. (Oh, those evil Canadians – socialized medicine, legal marijuana,
gay marriage, power blackouts…where will it end?) Meanwhile, Canadian
officials are just as certain that the cause can be found in Ohio or another
inept power plant south of the border.

From public figures we now hear the stern message that the present
calamity is a “wake-up call.” But will this be yet another energy “wake-up call”
that nobody heeds after the dust has settled? There have been numerous
non-turn turning points of this kind since the middle 1960s – the great New York
blackout of 1965, the energy crisis of 1973-74, a similar energy crisis in the late
1970s, the great power blackout of 1977, the West Coast blackout of 1996,
and so forth. In the aftermath of energy shortages or system breakdowns
people often talk about the need to rethink our relationship to energy and
change our ways of living. A historian’s assessment of the lessons from one
such period concludes, “The massive blackout of 1965 had many ramifications.
It forced Americans to reconsider their dependence on electricity, and propelled
electrical engineers to reexamine the power grid system.” Energy companies and
planners took “preventative measures governing interconnections and reliability,
so that a similar failure would not happen again.” (Blackout History Project)
Yes, we fixed that problem, and just in time too!

In the late 1970s, President Carter declared the energy crisis “the moral
equivalent of war,” and asked all Americans to turn down the lights and turn down
the heat. This was not a popular position, however. People laughed at Jimmy Carter
for appearing on TV wearing a sweater and talking about our energy habits as a
moral issue. When Ronald Reagan was elected president he declared an "oil glut"
and once again the citizenry felt justified in the excessive use of electricity and gasoline.
God bless our "way of life."

Having lived through several episodes of this kind, I feel as if I’m in a hotel and the
phone rings: “Hello. This is your energy wake-up call. Now you can go back to sleep.”