Standing at the mailbox in the abominable heat, I had two ways to get back to the house. The driveway is unshaded, hard and rocky, but safe. The short route, through the woods, is shady and the earth is softer. But poison ivy rambles over the path and ticks cling to the trees, waiting to drop on your head.
It was the day of the East Coast blackout, and I wanted to see the news -- call it Schadenfreude. And it was hot, with a palpable, insulting heat. Standing at the mailbox, I imagined each path.
Then my neighbor's pickup labored past, towing a giant fan to his industrial-sized hog houses.
Riddle me this: How is a major blackout on the East Coast like a neighbor towing a giant fan down a dusty gravel road?
Answer: The bigger they are, the harder they are to maintain.
The blackouts on the East Coast might reignite the movement toward sustainability. It's obvious that some energy uses are just plain stupid -- electrically-flushed toilets, electric-eye faucets, clocks on VCRs.
Other things -- elevators, air conditioning for tall buildings, lights in the hallways -- have become as essential as food for city dwellers. So essential, in fact, that it's easy to forget that 50 years ago many rural homes and businesses didn't have electricity at all. And, from my house, it's a short drive to Amish country, where after-dark life becomes an adventure in exercising memory and night vision. But, I digress.
In 2003, a failure in the system means more than a stumbling walk through a dark barn. Today, when the system fails, people die. And in the 2003 blackout, electricity production and transmission -- the entire grid idea -- failed.
Linking together lots of power plants in a "grid" was supposed to take advantage of seasonal electrical surplus in one market as opposed to needs in another. Consumers were supposed to benefit because they wouldn't have to pay for new power plants to satisfy seasonal needs.
We were told the payoff would be lower costs, but, as usual, the big winners were the corporations. That was the point all along. The day of the blackout, TV news didn't focus on people trapped in elevators but returned incessantly to one really offensive question: Will the stock market be able to re-open, or will the traders miss a day?
Back to the pickup truck and the fan: As early as Sept. 28, 1995, Kansas City power company Utilicorp boasted that it had moved electricity from the Pacific Northwest to Missouri, a whopping 50 megawatts for nine hours, required by giant hog producer Premium Standard Farms due to a heat wave. It was, at the time, the longest intra-company transaction for electricity and one of the longest transactions made in North America.
The exorbitant requirements of the giant confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) had been known since 1987, when an extension farm in Missouri reported that "a 1,000-hog finish operation uses 30,000 kilowatthours annually; A 100-sow farrowing operation uses 25,000 kilowatthours annually." They might also have reported that the CAFOs put family farms out of business, replacing them with industrial producers, but they didn't.
Family farms hardly use electricity at all to raise hogs. Family farms are also much easier on resources like water, and they don't pollute the air, but Extension forgot to mention that, too.
In fact, the electricity swaps have always been more favorable to industry -- Surprise! -- than they've been to consumers. After de-regulation -- another scheme that was supposed to benefit consumers but didn't -- industrial buyers bought or built power plants where costs were low, then sold the power where prices were high. At the same time, they raised the prices on local consumers who'd built the plants in the first place.
Following the money, expect Bush to dump tax dollars into the grid, because that will be the best for industry. Taxpayers will bail out the utilities that industry has plundered.
What about sustainability? No doubt there will be new interest in businesses and homeowners going off-the-grid with their own systems, and we can hope at least some of the systems are wind-powered or solar rather than generated from gas or nuclear generators.
These re-designs will make dents in overall use but the real solutions for sustainability have to do with re-designing our consumer habits to reject industry. This means becoming "Wal-Mart free," "Kroger's-free," "Tyson-free," "Con-Agra-free," and so forth. With a critical mass of consumers/taxpayers on board with local production, we can re-gain the power over our tax dollars.
The dream of sustainability is achievable and modest. It simply means democratic and open debate for all with a stake in the system. Consumers and producers would work together for policies that promote biodiversity and protection of the global resource base and the food security of future generations, rather than policies that promote industrial profits.
Which path will we take?
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.