What We Learn With the Lights Out, #2

Still on the Independence Day theme, and with an extra helping of cross-cultural comparison as we reflect on our nation's birthday, here is more reader response on the latest big American black-out. Previous installments here and here. Most of these messages are in response to earlier readers' suggestions that Americans should factor infrastructure-failure into their daily plans and prepare themselves, Eagle Scout-style, by laying in adequate survival supplies.

On self-reliance as the answer. A reader writes:

Imagine the hubbub if a European book for business men posted to the US said, to buy generators and canned food and water for a week because US utilities are unreliable.

In the same vein, from a Chinese perspective. A reader originally from the city of Harbin in northeastern China writes:

That long message you received from "a reader in Southern California" makes no sense to me at all. Electricity is not the luxury it was a century ago -- it is absolutely necessary for a modern industrial society to function. The reason the power has been out for days at a time for so many people isn't because of the storm alone, but because a for-profit company made a calculated decision that it would rather its customers eat the costs of a power outage than invest in the most reliable infrastructure it knows how to build.

You didn't expect multi-day outages to be something you needed to be prepared for, and you shouldn't have to expect that, because it doesn't have to be that way. I visited China last year, where many people (rightly) boil their tap water before use. Or exclusively drink bottled water. Think of all the energy wasted, all the time and effort expended and garbage thrown out just because the water wasn't sanitized properly at the source. That's what happens when a public utility can't be relied upon. But when I got back to America, I drank greedily straight from the tap. Because I could.

The reliability situation is reversed with cell phone coverage. In an emergency I can't rely on my cell phone to get a signal from AT&T here in DC. Mei banfa. [JF: "nothing to do about it" / "can't be helped".] But the same phone gets five bars anywhere in China on China Unicom.

These infrastructural problems are all entirely man-made, and they're like an invisible weight on your back that you don't notice until you go somewhere that does things better. But for each day they persist, they reduce our quality of life just that much more. What's the cost of each of these power outages? What's the cost of everyone buying a generator from Honda, as your reader did? That's the invisible weight I'm talking about. All this preparedness reflects a fatalistic, "mei banfa" attitude about infrastructure, and it's unnecessary in countries or cities where the infrastructure is sufficiently reliable.

Also: when someone talks about "expecting someone else to take care of them" and "being at the mercy of" government, I can't take them seriously at all. Leave aside that these are classic right-wing anti-government tropes. He/she just criticized you, a paying customer, for relying on the service you paid for, instead of criticizing the power company for failing you. It's a bizarre attitude -- blame the individual for being harmed, rather than think about what (or who) caused that harm. All under the guise of individualism and self-reliance.

In 2005 there was a massive benzene spill in Harbin, China (my birthplace) that caused the water supply to be cut off for several days. Would your Eagle Scout chastise the millions of people who live there for not having their own potable water on hand -- for expecting someone else to take care of them? Because government safety regulations (or lack thereof) are precisely why that costly accident happened there and not here. Thank God I can be "at the mercy of" the EPA, and the USDA, etc.

In every single aspect of our lives, we depend upon our fellow human beings, and in particular we depend upon the effectiveness of public institutions and infrastructure. That's called "civilization" and it is what enables us to live as we do. Rather than do everything ourselves, which is spectacularly inefficient (when it isn't outright impossible), we should work together to build something better. I say, be a citizen first and an Eagle Scout second.

The Continental perspective is much the same. A reader with a German name writes:

To my mind--and this is probably my European upbringing--the appropriate response to strengthening shared infrastructure that a commonwealth uses is to distribute equitably the cost of strengthening said infrastructure, whether it be via taxation or the higher cost the burying of power cables will inevitably entail.

I feel that it's an inadequate response (like the writer of the last, long letter did) to refer to the necessity of individual preparation for calamity when it comes to communal infrastructure--it elevates personal survivalism over the need for solidarity and shared burden when it comes when shared resources are concerned. The letter writer also ignores communal risk in favor of hedging against individual calamity--surely, his analogy with insurance breaks down when it comes to shared infrastructure. Or would he advocate that we all guard against the risks inherent in the potential collapse of bridges due to undermaintained infrastructure?

And, to be fair, we're not really 'third world.' A reader reminds us of what we have to be grateful for:

I wonder if the [an earlier writer], who refers to the USA as in many respects becoming a third world country, has actually lived in such a place. I know that you have spent many years overseas, and you must recognize this as hyperbole, although I can certainly agree with "misplaced priorities and a shallow libertarianism."

I lived in Istanbul 1964-66, and in Saudi Arabia 1978-83. Power outages were a normal part of life, not exceptional as they are in the USA. Frustrated as I am by the way things are, I see very little resemblance on a material level between this country and any third world country. However, I am quite worried about what appears to be a growing disdain for public service and shared responsibility. The clearest evidence I have seen of this was the vicious comments from "shallow libertarians" in response to General McChrystal's essay last year, "Step Up for Your Country." General McChrystal's essay was one of the most inspiring things I read in 2011; the attacks he received from the rabid right were among the most dismaying. [JF note: And this recently from Gen. McChrystal, at an Aspen presentation.]

That's enough for now. Go enjoy the fireworks, in places not so tinderbox-like that they're too dangerous this year.