The Corner

Energy & Environment

Lights Out (for the Good of the Planet, of Course)

(Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

Many cults demand a degree of performative asceticism and quite a few of them find virtue in the simplicity of a more natural, supposedly prelapsarian past, which, luckily for them, they never had to endure. And while many of those preoccupied by climate change, whether out of genuine scientific concern or cynical self-interest, are perfectly rational (even if the same cannot always be said for their conclusions), some climate warriors exhibit behavioral characteristics more akin to those of medieval flagellants or, in their more light-hearted moments, back-to-nature types in the early 20th century, wearing shorts, eating nuts, and (shudder) “hiking.”

George Orwell:

“One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist…”

Replace (to the extent it’s necessary) “Socialism” and “Communism” with certain strains of environmentalism, and, well . . .

Flip over to the Boston Review and check out an article by David McDermott Hughes, Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, entitled “To Save the Climate, Give Up the Demand for Constant Electricity” (my emphasis added):

So just how critical is continuity, then? And critical for whom? The U.S. grid sends 30 percent of its electricity to residences. As of 2017, 63 percent of those were single-unit, detached dwellings. Under Hawken’s plan in Drawdown, these houses will require battery farms and high-tension lines, and until they get them, they will probably draw power from natural gas at night. Thus, each household demanding continuous electricity marginally exacerbates the climate crisis. Perhaps, then, it is critical that we not store energy for these houses. At least, we should not do so in a way that hobbles the transition away from fossil fuels. We ought to consider waiting a few years for storage—enduring much more than six hours of downtime every year—for the sake of transitioning more rapidly away from fossil fuels…

COVID-19 has forced almost all white-collar workers to telecommute. Thanks to Zoom, meetings have dispersed from the conference room to bedrooms and kitchens. Business continuity now requires uninterrupted electricity in millions of households. For the moment at least, the economy and the family run on the same circuit, and we would seem to need continuity now more than ever. Today’s viral interruption, however, may actually teach us how to live with intermittency…

We will certainly need to be taught. In 2014 the German grid—6 percent of it working on solar energy—only scraped through an eclipse by drawing on other sources of electricity from neighboring countries.

“We will certainly need to be taught.”

The language of authoritarianism and the language of climate-change campaigners overlap just a little too often for comfort.

Meanwhile, as a reminder, Angela Merkel’s Energiewende, a policy shift away from nuclear energy and towards renewables, driven by political panic and Green pressure has been underway for years, at enormous cost to the consumer and to industry. It hasn’t worked out too well.

Note also the way that McDermott Hughes refers to the teaching moment that the “viral interruption” can provide. He is, of course, not the only climate warrior to believe that the current regime could be a useful precedent.

Meanwhile, back to his future:

Zimbabwe and Puerto Rico . . . provide models for what we might call pause-full electricity. Admittedly, neither Zimbabweans nor Puerto Ricans chose to accept this rationing. And in Zimbabwe, official incompetence has reduced electricity to a nearly unbearable degree. Still, Zimbabwe’s past and Puerto Rico’s potential indicate just and feasible ways of living amid intermittency. With a pause, life goes on. By abiding that interlude—by shedding their load—people can preserve life near and far. If my town’s blackout will lessen, say, the force of Puerto Rico’s next hurricane, then, please, shed us half a day per week.

Somewhere the manager of a coal-fired power plant in China laughed.


Many have already adjusted to shortages and rationing of basic goods from beans to toilet paper. To explain that kind of intermittent economy, some politicians have lately been reaching for an unlikely metaphor: inconstant electricity. They describe the slow, trial-and-error reopening of restaurants, schools, and businesses as turning a dimmer. The economic lights will not simply spring on; they will flicker as disease rises and falls. No one wants to lives this way, of course. But responsible leadership must be prepared to dim the economy with shelter-in-place orders—if not in Washington, then in Wellington. When required for safety, interruption means survival and life.

Unfortunately, if there’s one thing about which we can be reasonably certain so far as the “dimmer switch” approach is concerned it is that it works badly for the economy and over the course of the pandemic may well not to do much to save lives either. And on any reasonable risk-adjusted basis, it is a catastrophe. The best way to handle this virus is to learn to “live with it.” That doesn’t mean throwing caution to the winds, but it does mean understanding the concept of trade-offs. The same is true of climate change. Learning to live with whatever may be its effects doesn’t imply abandoning efforts at mitigation, but it does mean rejecting a Zimbabwean model, which will be as destructive as it is pointless.

Returning to Boston Review, and reading McDermott Hughes’s conclusion, it’s impossible to miss the idea that the COVID-19 “interruption” could be some sort of precedent (again, my emphasis added):

What applies in the pandemic also applies—and also with desperate urgency—in the climate crisis. We can live with some intermittency and rationing—at least until batteries and other forms of energy storage are up and running everywhere. Hospitals certainly need 100 percent reliable equipment—perhaps some “continuous” businesses and cell towers too. And, in cities, elevators, streetlights, and subways must run reliably. One could imagine battery-assisted, semi-smart micro-grids connecting such infrastructure as well as home medical devices. But we don’t need the entire residential third of U.S. electricity consumption to run off lithium or to operate seamlessly. We don’t need Nest or permanent telecommuting. For a while, let’s eat a cold dinner here and there. Continuity costs too much. Climate change kills, and it kills vulnerable people first. Intermittency saves lives, and it saves vulnerable people first. Let the pause take its place in continuous climate activism.

“A cold dinner here or there.”

You have been warned.


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