Blackout Blues

Misplaced guilt over the outage


The blackout that struck the eastern United States and Canada two weeks ago could be seen as evidence of how frighteningly vulnerable our infrastructure is. This time, it wasn't a terrorist act; who knows what could happen next year or next month—even if, so far, terrorists seem to be interested in inflicting large-scale casualties rather than causing serious disruptions of the economy and of everyday life? Yet, it could also be seen as a striking example of grace under pressure. Instead of panic, violence, and looting, there was, for the most part, composure and solidarity. True, this generally dignified response has been somewhat compromised by the unsightly blame game between Republicans and Democrats. And then there are some who would blame the American way of life itself: too much technology, too much comfort, too much prosperity.

No, we're not talking about the Unabomber with his anti-industrial manifesto, or about some wild-eyed radical environmentalist group. This view comes from Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen, a mainstream liberal commentator with a soccer-mom image that is the very opposite of wild-eyed radicalism.

Quindlen's comments had disturbing overtones of gloating over this grandiose failure of technology: "What you saw time and time again was hubris brought low, people accustomed to instant communication without phone service, people accustomed to flying anywhere and at any time grounded at the airport." There was also some finger-wagging at Americans for not reacting with proper humility and introspection. "No talk of changing behavior, of finding a balance," rues Quindlen. "Once the biggest power outage in history had begun, the only concern was for getting the juice back as quickly as possible. There was a faint undercurrent of revoked privilege."

Well, of course people's primary concern was getting things back to normal. But all in all, people coped remarkably well with some very serious inconveniences. And yes, we need to give more thought to contingency plans so that we are not quite so dependent on electricity (for instance, there ought to be a backup system for opening doors in hotel rooms without a card key so that a power loss does not leave guests stranded in the lobby). But changing behavior? How exactly? Should we give up instant communication? Flying? Air conditioning?

Some of Quindlen's thinking can be gleaned from the fact that in the same column, she chides suburbanites who have a problem with bears. The real problem, she says, is not a bear problem but a "people problem": after all, the bears were here first, and all we do is "build unattractive structures atop their former homes." Quindlen complains that Americans' houses have gotten too big, and suggests that instead of issuing bear-hunting permits, the state of New Jersey should impose a permanent moratorium on building permits. How very humanitarian.

It's fine, of course, for a culture to take a critical look at itself and its assumptions. But some on the left seem to question the very right of modern Western civilization to exist, either in the face of people who hate us, or in nature.

Critics of environmentalism have long claimed that environmentalist philosophy has a human-hating streak. Over a decade ago, California National Park Service biologist David M. Graber wrote, "We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth. Until such time as homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along." Biologist Paul Erlich has described the birth of a baby in an advanced industrial country as a "disaster" for the Earth.

The mindset that regards the blackout as a well-deserved blow to our "hubris," and a wake-up call for us to change our lifestyles, may not be nearly as vicious. But it has the same overtones of smugness combined with self-flagellation—and a faint streak of the same antipathy to humanity.

Like everything else, technological progress has its downside, including our dependence on technology. When we lose electrical power, we fare worse than people who have never had it. But the inconvenience is a small price to pay for vast gains in human health and welfare. There is no "rejoining nature," if that means giving up the things we have devised to protect ourselves from nature's harshness. There are, however, ways to use resources more efficiently. But Americans shouldn't be told to feel guilty because they have a good life.