When The Lights Go Out

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of podcasts lately on issues of collapse, peak oil, post-civilization, anti-civilization, etc. lately. I am convinced that the history of civilizations and empires tells us pretty clearly that collapse is inevitable. The collapse of a global civilization based on oil is unprecedented and the implications for our lifestyles can be pretty overwhelming. I have primitivist friends who try to learn skills like tanning, making clothes, moving quietly in a forest, foraging edible plants, etc. that will help them when all the oil is gone and we need to eat, clothe ourselves and find shelter. They also attempt to live in community and share possessions which is currently lacking and will certainly be a much needed skill. But they live in a house that uses electricity, plumbing, flushing toilets and drive cars (though one has been converted to run on waste vegetable oil). My aim is not to point fingers. I, too, fall short of some ideal lifestyle that may not be possible at the moment and may not exist at all.

I have tried to imagine what a post-collapse world will actually be like and what kind of things will help and what things won’t. Derrick Jensen talks about taking out dams, the electricity grid and other infrastructure that he believes is ultimately destructive to ourselves and the earth. What things

I wrote a while back about our first experience of a few days without running water in Bolivia. It was an eye-opening experience, something felt in the body more than the head. The other night I had a similar experience. It is winter down here in the Southern hemisphere. Though it might not get as cold as it does back home in Texas, there is no central heating here. So, the few weeks of really cold winter weather you are cold all the time. We try to use the oven as much as possible because it warms up our kitchen nicely. We also have two small space heaters that work pretty well. However, since all of our doors lead outside, our bathroom is not attached to our house and much of life here is lived outside, the cold is impossible to escape. We also live pretty far out in the country.

The other night as we were putting the kids to bed, the lights went out. Everything was pitch black, the heater was not on and I thought, “I’m not ready for collapse!” Even with all the electricity on I can see more stars here than I have ever seen and the Milky Way is often very clearly visible in the night sky. It was close to the new moon as well. So, when the lights went out it was about as dark as I have ever experienced. My heart jumped. I was not at all prepared. I felt caught completely off guard. We scrambled for flashlights and headlamps as I tried to figure out if it was just us or everybody.

Our town is working on completing a water tower to supply the town with water more consistently. This particular night they were working, I think, on the building to house the pump, when somehow they knocked out the power. It was only off for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, but it was one of those moments that shocks you awake. It made me realize how much I was still connected, attached and perhaps addicted to these things (as I write this on my laptop which is dependent on the same system) that depended on the grid. Questions flashed in my mind. How will we find our way around when the batteries run out? How will we stay warm tonight in this cold? What will we do tomorrow if it’s still not on?

In a profound way I felt a sense of loss and grief at the theoretical passing of this huge chunk of my identity which is bound up in this system that sustains me. I think that is a healthy response to the idea, the possibility or the inevitability of collapse. One of the villages I work with got electricity for the first time within the last year. I thought that was an interesting fact, but now I try to imagine my friends living with the darkness that I experienced the other night for their entire lives. Their identity is not wrapped up in this grid and all that it brings. If the grid collapsed tomorrow their experience would be vastly different from mine. It would have very little effect on them, but I would be scrambling to reconfigure my whole existence around this new reality.

P.S. As I was writing this post the lights went out again (this time at 4pm). This time it was the electric company shutting us off for not paying for the last two months… oops. The only gas station in the area has not had gasoline for the last week which has hampered my plans to go pay our account since our truck is out of fuel. How nice would it be to have one less bill to pay and thing to worry about. There is a lot of freedom in untangling ourselves from the system. What I have realized is that it is a long journey in which we slowly uncover how entangled we really are.

May the truth of Christ and the liberating presence of the Spirit continue to lead us into true freedom.

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