January 29, 2003

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The outage next time

THE ELECTRIC RANGE is a device I left behind a long time ago – and not just because it doesn't work when the power fails – but elsewhere in my life electronic gizmos have proliferated. This is probably not unusual in the mad circus of modern life, but it does mean that when the power goes out, as it did on a gelid gray morning last week, life essentially comes to a stop.

On that gloomy morning I found myself, in the midst of writing this very column (which naturally began as a very different column), staring at a lifeless screen. No reading lights, no dishwasher, no cordless telephone (though a few years ago I had taken the precaution of installing one of the old-style phones – the kind that draw their power from the phone line itself – in the bedroom). The furnace too died, and the house none too slowly cooled, like the body of some luckless murder victim sprawled on the sidewalk.

It is banal to note that life as we know it ceases to exist when a certain utility cannot keep the electricity flowing. But I note this fact anyway. Life becomes a candlelit monastery, filled with frustrated and antsy monks who do not wish to be monks and who become even more frustrated and antsy when the power tantalizingly returns, only to fail again two minutes later. I am living in a third world country, I thought to myself, watching the lights up and down the street go on and off, as they did in that Simpsons episode when the family went crazy zapping each other in group electroshock therapy and shorted out all of Springfield.

It is in such moments of systemic failure that one asks oneself why the system has been arranged the way it has been. It is not fatuous to argue that a stable supply of electricity is as vital and basic to modern civilization as is a stable water supply. Yet the latter is provided by a public agency, while the former is entrusted to a for-profit corporation.

It is amazing to me that anyone at all would vote to continue the monopoly of such a corporation. We are overdue in asking ourselves whether it is necessary for private industry to make money on every aspect of people's lives, as surely it wishes to do and will always seek to do, or whether there are public interests that sometimes trump the moneymaking prerogative. Basic services – water, fire protection, and, yes, electricity – seem to me to be such public interests. Next time there's a vote, public power should pass by acclamation.

Paul Reidinger

paulr@sfbg.com