The god of electricity

November 8, 2012

Danielle Allen is a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Her latest book is the forthcoming work “Why the Declaration of Independence Matters.”

Imagine that, in the 19th century, fire had disappeared. This is, roughly, what was experienced by the millions who lost power in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, even the lucky ones who lost only that. When Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano visited Staten Island last Friday, she described “the electricity crisis” as “the fundamental issue” that faced the region in the aftermath of Sandy, and she was right.

I am one of the lucky ones. Trees fell on neighbors’ houses and, terribly, on a neighbor, killing him. None fell on our house, or on us. But still, the episode generated a high degree of stress.

Why exactly?

Two days after the storm I wrote to a friend that I would not be making a planned trip to Chicago. We had no power or heat, I said, and didn’t expect it on for 10 days or so, and I couldn’t leave my family in those circumstances. In a well-intentioned spirit, she responded that she was glad we were all safe and sound and missing only “the creature comforts.”

Indeed, I felt like a wimp to find the absence of electricity so confounding. Hadn’t people managed just fine without it a mere hundred years ago? For my family, this was our third time in three years to go roughly a week without electricity on account of storms. We were more prepared this time — with more candles, more flashlights, some supplies for fire-making — and still it has not been easier.

Why?

I believe, after eight days without power, I figured it out. Since methods for the mass distribution of electricity were invented, our lives have been completely reorganized around it. Where once people kept themselves warm, fed and informed on the basis of fire, we now do so on the basis of electricity. We don’t build hearths; we build decorative fireplaces. We don’t cure our food; we refrigerate it. No longer do we meet around roaring fires in taverns at conventionally known times to pass the news.

Nor can we turn on a dime and start doing all that once again with fire. This should be obvious, but for some reason it is not, even after several major blackouts in recent times: the famous Northeast blackouts of 1965 and 2003, and the New York City blackout of 1977.

Yet those dark periods lasted only 12 hours to two days. This time, hundreds of thousands of people have gone a week or more without power — and without clarity about when it would return — in weather turning cold. Hundreds of thousands still lack power, with a fresh Nor’easter lashing the region this week.

We should learn from the ancient Greeks, and how they thought about fire, to give electricity more respect.

Greek mythology records an epic struggle between Zeus and his kinsman Prometheus. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mortals. In so doing, he re-calibrated the balance of power between the divine and the human. In the words of the Greeks, he gave to mankind honors that belonged to the immortals. For this, Zeus sought to punish him by binding him to craggy rocks where eagles would eat out his liver by day, only to have it re-grow during the night so the punishment could resume again with dawn.

With this myth, the Greeks taught themselves, over and over again, how awesome was their dependence on fire. Now, Hurricane Sandy has given us the stuff of myth, which we can use to teach how total is our reliance on electricity.

If electricity is our fire, then Thomas Edison is our Prometheus. Edison is said — by the electricity-fueled Internet, among other sources — to have powered up the first 59 electrical customers in Lower Manhattan in 1882. In 1883, Wikipedia notes, he launched “the first standardized incandescent electric lighting system employing overhead wires” in Roselle, N.J. Roselle is in coastal Union County.

Zeus was enraged that the gift of fire had empowered mortals and reduced their meekness before nature. The gift of electricity has certainly done the same. If I were a playwright of Greek tragedies, would I not find in recent events the material for a drama of cosmic justice? The hurricane walloped Lower Manhattan and coastal New Jersey, just where our modern Prometheus stole fire from the gods. In Hurricane Sandy, the gods came riding in and took it back.

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