March 25, 2011

Earth Hour: Vote for Sustainability by Turning Off the Lights

After the American Century

This year Earth Hour is on Saturday, March 26. Around the world millions of people will join this event and cut back their electrical consumption. This is a fundamentally new use of the technology of electricity, as people declare  that excessive energy use threatens the environment.

Less than a century ago most of the world's houses, and most in the US as well, did not have electricity. A blackout was inconceivable, as most people controlled their own light, in the form of lamps, candles, hearth fires, and the like. Between 1911 and 2011 a tremendous change has taken place. Not only have billions of people wired their houses and apartments, but the electrical systems have been connected together into vast grids. These are in many ways admirable, ingenious engineering feats, designed to shunt power around to balance the load at each local utility.  

But the interconnections that make possible the grid also make possible cascading system failures, spreading blackouts from one city and state to another. The most spectacular examples in the United States occurred in 1965 and 2003, when blackouts spread at almost the speed of lightning and pushed millions of people from the power dependency of the electrical age back to an involuntary self-sufficiency. With each generation we are less able to fend for ourselves, as more and more parts of our lives are inextricably linked to the electrical system. When the power fails, there is no Internet, no television, no microwave, and no air conditioning. The ATM does not work, mobile phones are suddenly dead, and the kitchens dark and useless, unless one has a gas stove. Even so, all the food begins to thaw in the freezer.

Earth Hour reminds us how to live without the power, however briefly, but it is far more than that. It also is each person's chance to use the electrical system as a voting machine. Turn off the appliances, switch off the lights, and tell politicians and fellow citizens that you want to pollute less and be more efficient. Join Earth Hour as a declaration that the endless growth in electrical consumption has to stop somewhere.

Did you know that the average American family today uses as much energy every month as their grandparents did in an entire year? Did you know that electrical consumption for the US as a whole doubled roughly every decade for most of the twentieth century? That kind of growth is not sustainable, nor is it necessary to live a good life. Turn off the lights. Rediscover conversation. With luck, after an hour you might be telling stories. Shut off the TV, look up, and see the stars.
For more on the history of blackouts, see my When the Lights Went Out: A History of American Blackouts (MIT Press, 2010). On the energy system, see Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies (MIT Press, 1998), and Electrifying America (MIT Press, 1990).