The experience of being without power

10/31/2019

I’ve been reflecting on electricity: having it, not having it, the risks of having it coursing through aerial lines in a tinderbox, and how to responsibly live with such risk. I thought I was going to write an article about reframing the public-safety power shutoff experience into something that, with advance notice and preparedness, can feel like a retreat into quiet, natural rhythms and restorative attunement to what our bodies recognize as soothing: resting when it is dark, being active when it is light.

Instead, hunkered down while the winds whip outside, my heart is with those fleeing their homes to the north and my mind is on emergency preparedness and what human beings need to survive.

Last week, fire was so close to home that dear people in our community evacuated Slide Ranch. It became very real: this is something that could come to us, here. I signed up for Nixle public-safety alerts now texted to my phone. (It’s easy: text 888777 with your zip code and you’ll start getting updates.) I reviewed safety and evacuation plans with my family. We identified a safe place to meet up and made sure my children knew two ways to get out of each room in our house.

I thought about having just 10 minutes to leave my home: How would that go? Have I put together the items I value into a backpack I can just grab? What else might I want to add? A solar-powered cell-phone charger or a hand-crank emergency radio? Are all of my important documents in one place that would be easy to find, even in the dark? 

With this heightened awareness of risk, I spent the afternoon with my daughters in an enjoyably engaged way, talking about what we would need and gathering materials for our backpack. Kids love this sort of thing, and it is relaxing to know it has been done. Ready Marin has valuable preparedness lists and resources at readymarin.org. The more versed in preparedness and survival we are, the less stressful these experiences become.

The experience also shines light on how much we have to be grateful for: the firefighters and emergency responders who work to keep us safe, and our local fire departments for keeping a list of vulnerable community members and responding to their needs (be sure to let them know if you are dependent on a medical device that requires electricity or medicine that needs refrigeration, like insulin). I am grateful to have a gravity-fed water system, a gas stove, a corded landline, food growing in the garden, the generator (and community co-work vibe) at the fire house and health center, and land-mates with whom to check in. Like many, I am feeling appreciation for the opportunity to sharpen my awareness of what it means to be prepared.

As we move through this fire season and into the blessed rains of winter, I hope to carry with me another awareness these outages have sharpened: our modern lifestyle is dependent on the massive collective consumption of electricity. We are vulnerable in our dependence on a utility like PG&E. Whether or not it can afford to put power lines underground, we would benefit by furthering the conversation on local power grids, or microgrids, and other ways to increase our energy independence, both individually and as a community. We will all benefit from an awareness of our “energy budget,” examining how much are we using, what is essential or luxurious and wasteful use, and whether we can be generating electricity in a renewable way. There are many local experts and resources to help us learn about how to become more energy-wise and sovereign.

When we are prepared, the experience of being without power can be a restorative pause from our usual amped-up lives. It can become an opportunity to step away from overly stimulating engagement with digital screens. Experiencing darkness at night is good for our body and mind. In fact, we are only beginning to understand the risk that light at night poses to our health. 

We have evolved over thousands of years to conditions of light during the day and dark during the night, so that our body’s circadian rhythm attunes us to daily and seasonal rhythms. This rhythm—governed by light and dark—releases hormones like melatonin, impacts our metabolism and immune system, and even modifies genetic expression. Many studies have shown that exposure to light at night increases our risk of sleep disruption, obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, breast cancer and prostate cancer. Allowing ourselves to be moved by natural rhythms toward sleepiness in the evening, and then going to bed, is a healthy and natural habit.

In many ways, there are gifts wrapped up in the inconvenience of power outages. Perhaps only external forces beyond our control can shake us from our cultural conditioning and collective inertia and show us what matters most in life. Maybe we can even consider a voluntary move toward simplicity and less use of electricity, quieting our activity in the evening and reacquainting ourselves with our natural rhythms. I fantasize about an electricity “Sabbath”: a regularly recurring day of rest when the electrical background hum quiets, the lure of the internet subsides, the tug of “productivity” and “efficiency” lessens, and we surrender into connection with what we value most. 

As the fires burn on, let us use this challenging experience to support each other, especially those directly affected by the fires, and to reconnect to the ever-renewing source of energy that comes from attunement to natural rhythms and
community.

 

Dr. Anna O’Malley is an integrative family and community medicine physician at the Coastal Health Alliance and the director of Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine in the Commonweal Garden.