All of us here on the island of Newfoundland have had plenty of time to think about scarcity over the past week. Last Thursday our power companies, NL Hydro and NL Power, announced that they were beginning a series of “rolling blackouts” — temporary power outages in various areas — because the demand for electrical power during a very cold spell had exceeded their ability to generate that power. When a blizzard hit Friday night coupled with a fire at a substation in the early hours of Saturday morning, the rolling blackouts became widespread power outages. For most people, electrical power was an off-and-on prospect over the weekend, with most, like us, returned to full power by midday Sunday. All schools in the province, which were supposed to start up again on Monday after the Christmas break, delayed opening till today, Thursday, in the name of conserving power and making sure the buildings were warm and safe for students to return to. I’m posting this just before going to work so I guess we’ll see how the system holds up once the lights are on at all the schools.
Even as the power came back on there were fervent calls from the government and the power companies for us to conserve, conserve, conserve — turn down thermostats, avoid running washing machines and dishwashers at all if possible, or if not, at least refrain from running them during peak usage hours, etc., etc. And, of course, there were just as fervent complaints from people being asked to save power in their homes and wear dirty socks for three days in a row while the stores in the Avalon Mall stayed open and hockey games went ahead under the lights at Mile One Stadium.
Over the last few days we’ve heard people complaining about the hardship, and people telling others to shut up and stop complaining; people furious at the premier for not showing more leadership and for describing the situation as “not a crisis”; people questioning the stability and preparedness of our entire power system. My friend Tina Chaulk wrote a great blog post summarizing some of the very just reasons we should be upset at the decision-makers in this situation. It’s important to remember that even though our suffering was no greater than that of people in Ontario or the Maritimes during their recent ice storms and power outages, no greater than what we experienced a few years ago with Hurricane Igor, there was something different about this blackout. The power outages started considerably before the storm hit. This wasn’t a case of an ice storm or a hurricane knocking out power lines: this was a case of our hydroelectric utility company going to the public and saying, “We cannot supply enough power to meet your needs.”
I’m willing to bet that, like me, most people in Newfoundland before last Thursday had never thought of electrical power as a finite, limited resource that we might run out of. We talk about it being good to conserve energy (some of us do, anyway), but conservation is always optional. Suddenly, it became a necessity. In fact, it was forced upon us. We realized that something most of us had taken for granted, something we had assumed would always be there, was in fact limited and could be cut off at any moment.
In other words, we noticed the way things really are.
People my age and younger grew up in a world of seemingly limitless abundance. Barring a storm that knocks out the power, the lights will always come on when you flick the switch. When you pull up to the pumps there will always be gas. Clean water will always appear when you turn on the tap. The food you want will be on the supermarket shelves in vast quantity and variety. Those of us who’ve lived out our lives in late twentieth-century North America rarely have to think about scarcity.
But it’s real. Much of the world knows it all the time. Even leaving aside for the moment drought-stricken regions where people are starving, many people live or have lived in places where shortages and periodic power cuts are the norm rather than the exception.
Our parents grew up in an age of scarcity. Those hardy old folks in their 70s and 80s now were born and came of age in the Depression and in wartime, in the era of shortages and ration cards. Most of them grew up thrifty, turning off lights when they left a room, reusing things and making them last longer. It was their children who learned to take abundance for granted, who thought of stories of scarcity as tales from the Bad Old Days, never to come again.
I don’t want to be a gloom-and-doomsayer but I honestly believe that if human life on this planet lasts, historians will look back on our generation — those of us who lived in North America through the last half of the twentieth century — as the people who lived through the short-lived and anomalous Age of Abundance. Supplies of everything, including energy, are limited, and the developing world is home to a vast, growing, and ever-more-wealthy population of people who want the share of the pie they’ve too long been denied.
Yes, we need to be working constantly on developing new, renewable and hopefully less destructive sources of energy. But does anyone truly believe that that energy can be extended to everyone who wants it — everyone in China, everyone in India — without the added balance of less consumption? We must not only find ways to provide more, but to use less. And most of us are only willing to use less — less electricity, less gasoline, less of everything — if 1) we’re fairly enlightened, thoughtful people who care about these issues, 2) we really believe our reduced consumption will make a difference, and 3) it doesn’t inconvenience us too much. That’s a recipe for disaster.
Gandhi is alleged to have said that the world has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed. He was probably thinking about food and other tangible commodities, but it’s true of sources of energy too. I think with tremendous goodwill and ingenuity it might be possible to develop enough safe energy sources to supply adequate power to everyone in the world without too much further damage to the environment. But can we ever produce enough power to allow nearly seven billion people to live the way upper-middle-class North Americans live? Could we ever safely and sustainably produce enough energy to allow billions of people to live in 3000+ square-foot open-plan homes that are comfortably warm in summer and cool in winter, with several big-screen TVs and stereo systems and major appliances running most of the day, driving two or more cars at least one of which is a minivan, pickup or SUV, getting their exercise on powered treadmills while taking the car to go get milk and bread at the corner store?
Of course we can’t.
(I do think, by the way, that this mentality of endless abundance is mainly a North American issue; people in Europe are just as wealthy as we are, in general, but don’t seem to have the same attitude towards consumption. I know that in the UK, at least, the Depression and war-time scarcities continued, to some degree, well into the 1950s and 60s and even the 70s, and Europeans in general seem content to live in smaller homes, drive smaller cars and use more public transit than we do in North America).
So if we can never produce enough energy to allow everyone on earth to live that way without destroying the environment, then there are only two options I can see: 1) Accept that the world will always be unjust and the vast majority will always have fewer resources than a tiny minority. This is fundamentally wrong and unfair, but more to the point, are people on other continents going to stand for that kind of thinking as they grow in wealth and power? I bet they’re not. Or, 2) Those of us who’ve grown up in a world of abundance — and our children — are going to have to reacquaint ourselves with scarcity.
Could we get by with less? Of course we could. The rolling blackouts are a huge pain in the butt at the moment, but if I knew that central St. John’s was going to be without electrical power from 2-5 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I’d adapt. If I got a gas card saying, “This will get you the 100 litres of gas you can use this month; if you exceed that, you’ll have to find another way to get around,” I’d find other ways. We’re an adaptable species. And for most of our history, up until the last 50 – 75 years, we’ve adapted to resources that are not limitless. We’ve understood that we have to accept a certain amount of scarcity to survive.
The problem is that people won’t move from abundance to scarcity voluntarily. Oh, some will, but out of all the people who post pictures on Facebook of adorable tiny houses that are energy efficient, how many would actually be willing to move into a tiny house as opposed to moving up to that open-plan 3000-square-footer in the suburbs as soon as their income allows it? How many of us set goals for how we’d like to voluntarily limit our consumption, but then justify going over those limits if our needs, or even our wants, exceed our self-imposed limits?
Realistically, limited consumption — of electricity, gasoline, or any other resource — is only going to come about one of two ways. Either it’s government-mandated, like ration cards during wartime — and given how badly people react to even a conservation measure as simple as banning those inefficient incandescent light bulbs, that’s not going to happen without a fight. Or it’s market-driven, as with the rolling power blackouts, when a business says, “Sorry, there’s simply not enough of what you need to go around.”
I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but I think it’s inevitable that my children’s world will be more like the one their grandparents grew up in, a world where they’ll have to think about what resources are available and plan how to use them in a way that I’ve never had to do. And while the idea of power cuts and ration cards might sound like prophesying gloom and doom, maybe it’s not. Obviously extreme hardship and scarcity is bad for people. But does limitless abundance produce happier, more well-adjusted people and societies? I’m not sure it has proven to be so.
While I think the process of getting there will be painful for those of us who’ve grown up with the dream of endless abundance, I think that a return to scarcity, in some ways at least, is not just inevitable but might be a good thing — for the planet, and for all of us.