What will you do when the lights go out (again)?

An unusually early snowstorm in the Northeastern U.S. left three million people without electricity for up to ten days at the end of October.  While some deaths were reported (mostly caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from using gas stoves, generators, and even charcoal grills indoors), for most of us it proved to be a week of inconvenience and discomfort.

The local newspapers covered the storm extensively, sharing stories about long lines at the fast food restaurants, people hanging out at coffee shops to get internet and stay warm, and many showing up at the library or other public buildings to charge their cell phones.  Letters to the editor criticized the electric companies for ill-preparedness and politicians promised to investigate the situation!  Lots of people seemed pretty angry about the disruption in electrical power (something that is relatively common in much of the world).

A story nobody covered however happened in my basement, where neighbors gathered each evening for dinner cooked on the wood stove.   As someone who teaches classes on sustainability, I figure I need to be somewhat prepared for “the end of civilization.” 

Okay, so this is bit of an overstatement (I hope), but I do think everything we consider normal (plentiful food in the stores, lights that turn on at the flick of a switch, and ready supplies of fuel – just to name a few) will come to an end someday.   Why you ask?  Well, lets consider;

  1. Peak oil – If something can run out….. it will run out.  Easily accessible fossil fuel is an energy resource of the past.  And we are not doing much to develop alternatives, are we?   Well, are we?
  2. Global climate change – I don’t know about you – but it hardly seems “normal” when my home state of Massachusetts experiences a hurricane, a tornado, tremors from an earthquake, and a major October snow storm in the same year.  Something is up…..
  3. Economic stress – I guess you read the newspapers too.

So, yes….. I think we are experiencing a “new normal” in which power outages, fuel shortages and periods in which some foods won’t be available will be more commonplace.  I don’t know when……..   but if the lights can go out…. well, they will go out.

And, yes….. I confess to have done a little work in preparation for time when the electricity might shut off for a few days.  Over the past few years, my wife and I (okay, mostly me… she thinks I’m a little nuts) have invested in:

  • A big garden
  • Solar hot water
  • A wood stove
  • An alcohol cook stove
  • A small generator
  • Oil lamps
  • Efficient hand-cranked flash lights
  • A water filter and rain barrel
  • A chain saw
  • A portable toilet
  • And chickens….. yes, we have fresh eggs when the stores are closed

I’m not a survivalist nut…. no, really.  But I think a little preparation might be good practice for the day when power outages are part of everyday living.

So, what happened when the lights went out at my house?

Well, we weren’t prepared for a snow storm in October.  One of the things you need to run a generator is gasoline.  When the lights went out, I went out to the garage, pulled out the generator and realized we didn’t have enough gasoline to get through the night.  Undaunted we went around the neighborhood and siphoned gasoline (with permission) from lawnmowers that wouldn’t be used until next summer.  We had lights!

The generator provided just enough electricity to keep the freezer (with 25 frozen chickens we had raised in our backyard last summer) humming along.  The refrigerator was next and then a few lamps to read by.  We spent a quiet evening by the wood stove sipping tea we warmed on our alcohol stove.  And we woke to a world in which tree limbs were everywhere and power lines lay on the ground.  It didn’t look good.

The first neighbor who showed up had heard the generator and asked to put a few things in our freezer.  The next neighbor wanted to take a shower (the sun was shining and the solar system was making hot water).  And then folks began stopping by  just to get warm and charge their cell phones.

For most people, the week in the dark began as a bit of an adventure and turned into a depressing and cold week….. well, everywhere except in our basement.  There we had food (salvaged from thawing freezers in the neighborhood), hot coffee and tea, and good conversation.  My wife served breakfast each morning of local (from our backyard) eggs.  A few family members and neighbors spent the night.  I got some help removing tree limbs from the yard.  We even provided internet service (I have no idea why it was working).  My wife and I enjoyed being able to help a few friends simply be a bit more comfortable.

And then the lights came back on!

So, what did we learn?

Well, perhaps a few more of us might want to be prepared for the next time the lights go out.  That’s pretty obvious. You can start with any of the items on the list above.

But what about the deeper meaning?  For me, it was about neighborliness.  I believe we have a yearning for community.  Bill McKibbon, in his book, Deep Economy, wrote “if you are a poor person in China you have plenty of friends and family around all the time.”   But this is not true for the average suburban homeowner in the western world.  For the suburbanite he wrote, “….adding a new friend is a big deal.”  We lack human connections. Frankly, I really liked having friends and neighbors stopping in, unannounced.  Nobody has stopped by since the lights came back on.  I miss them.

What else?  I noticed how difficult it was for people to ask for help.  We need to work on this.  Hyper-individualism will literally kill us if we don’t learn to depend more on each other.  My thing is food.  I grow way too many vegetables.  In the summer, I like to put the extras out in front of the house  for anyone walking by to take.   I also enjoy helping people get started raising hens (for the eggs of course).  And we give away lots of eggs.

But this is only a beginning.  Maybe we should start practicing asking for help before the lights go out again.  And how about sharing a snowblower among a few families?  Do we all need a 40 foot extension ladder?   But sharing tools is the easy part – its difficult to borrow a ladder when you don’t know your neighbor’s first name.

Last fall I joined with a group of neighbors to read  Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition.”   Caroline Baker suggests that to be prepared for the pain and confusion of the coming crisis, we might want to try to become better practiced at dealing with despair.  She suggests a few tools such as mindfulness meditation, story telling, and “inflicting joy” on each other.   At least we might want to get to know our neighbors a little better.  When things get really bad, it won’t be enough to be able to siphon a little gas from your neighbor’s lawnmower.

As the impact of peak oil, climate change and economic stress accelerate, we may learn that growing food, finding clean water, and providing heat will be among the easier transitions.  More difficult perhaps may be learning to communicate effectively while we are hungry and cold, to barter and trade with our neighbors, and to support each other as all the things we take for granted today slowly disappear.

Thomas Malthus wrote in 1798 “the mighty law of self-preservation expels all the softer and more exalted emotions of the soul.”  He predicted chaos in response to what he called “…the chilling breath of want.”   I suspect he is right.  If we are to survive the coming chaos, we’ll need to prepare both our homes and gardens as well as our souls for a new and much harsher world.  But perhaps in the pain and despair, we’ll rediscover what it means to be a human being again, living in community.

 So what will you do when the lights go out (again)?


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

9 thoughts on “What will you do when the lights go out (again)?”

  1. You could also used those outdoor solar lights (the ones everyone uses to light up their driveways with) to add a little light into a home in an emergency. Just don't forget to take them back outside to recharge durning the day..

    Dora Wilkerson

  2. We didn't lose power in that particular storm but do often. In the big ice storm in – what was it '08? '09? – we lost power for 9 days. Our house is fairly self-sufficient. The only thing we missed during that time was electric and phone for communication and water-pumping. Cell phones barely work out here in the hills and the DSL lines were down, so no email and our neighborhood was treed-in preventing travel, so we were cut off for a couple of days with friends and family wondering if we were ok.

    We also need electric for our well pump and our pumped septic. Without a snow base to melt, we were gathering icicles for extra water and raided the stored water we keep in the basement for emergencies.

    Heat and cooking can be entirely done on our woodstove and our wood is in a woodshed built on to the back of the house, so we didn't even have to go outdoors. We lost some food that was in the fridge and freezer because the weather was too warm. Usually if it looks prolonged and it's cold weather, we just put the food outdoors in the chest to keep it cool. We buy beans and other dried staples in bulk through our local store, so we always have a good store of non-perishables to hold us if we can't get out.

    We *did* get a generator after that storm to take care of the water and septic pumping problem for prolonged storms, but we're saving up for a solar (PV) system to at least take care of that, if not the whole house (stand-alone) not utility intertie, or at least with a utility disconnect so it can run independently if necessary.

  3. Oh! Don't forget the importance of dynamo flashlights! If you're queasy about candles, these lights never run out of power because you crank them up when they dim. No dead batteries, no need to recharge. They're fantastic.

  4. Ooops! Just found the list. Good advice all.

    We have a SunMar composter toilet from when we just camped on the land before the house was built. At the time of the ice storm, we didn't go out to the outhouse, but now it's built onto the backside of our chicken coop, so access is always open. They work wonders in an emergency and I can testify they don't smell at all! Just keep a bag of leaves and some forest soil (the light stuff you can rake up with the leaves) handy and toss a bit in after you go. Turn the crank and it all starts to compost immediately.

    As for the large garden – yes! Grow as much as possible and make sure you buy non-GMO seed varieties, so you can save your own seeds for next year. Right now we also use an electric dehydrator to keep some of the extra for winter (dried tomatoes make AMAZING soup), but we're planning on building a solar dehydrator next spring. No electric needed.

    Ok. I'm done. 🙂

  5. We also have solar/wood heat, a gas stove that doesn't use power for cooking, a gar hot water heater that doesn't use power, lots of oil lamps and oil, and a generator. So except for shoveling and cutting limbs off the electric fences, life was much as usual.

    We offered what we had to lots of people, but only 2 families took us up. One put stuff in our freezer and another used the shower once and later borrowed the generator when we got power a week before they did. Most muddled along w/o heat or cooking or showers.

    We also raise most of our food (chickens, beef, pork, vegs) and we've been preparing for when the power goes out for a decade.

    I also have an electric dehydrator. Unless they've improved in the couple years since I checked into them, the solar dehydrators I found had no temperature control. They got really hot, not good for enzymes or nutrients.

    Good post, John!

  6. Very interesting post. I think for permaculture and sustainable living to really work well the surrounding community needs to be involved. Your post is inspiring.

  7. Thanks for this post…enLIGHTening. I live in an apartment complex in S.Amherst. Electric was out for 3 full days. We had water, and the gas stove just required matches. So, I heated water for bathing. I keep bottles of water in the freezer for when I take a cooler out for a potluck. These water bottles stayed frozen the entire three days. A longer last than the square cool packs, which are also in the freezer. As day one became day two, I moved some of the frig food to the freezer, where the temps were colder. I dug the big pots into the snowbanks left from the storm. Used a Coleman lantern and listened to the reports on a battery-operated radio/CD player. I laso found myself checking in more with neighbors. Some had their stoves on the low burner setting with big pots of water sending out warm steam. When I tried that, however, my CO detector went off, so I quit that action. I found that my spirit was up to the challenge, and was I ever happy to have my cat Mali sleeping at the angle of my knees!

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