More than a “massive inconvenience,” as Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) called the shutdown, this unprecedented measure marks a new low in public confidence that could have far-reaching consequences on California and its residents. It’s fueling anger, distrust and bitterness from Californians already struggling to meet basic needs in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, staggering gas prices and increasing precarity in gig economy jobs that offer barely a living wage. We are supposed to be the state that represents America’s bright future. But what happens when that future goes dark?
Like many Californians, I am suspended between two parallel worlds: that of my overflowing email inbox where life and work mostly proceed as usual at the university where I work in San Francisco, where power would remain on, and the other in which potential chaos waits around the corner.
When I stood on my front porch in East Oakland on the first day of planned shut-offs, everything seemed normal. A gentle breeze ruffled my hair and the trees. Renovation on two derelict houses across the street continued without interruption; gentrification couldn’t afford to take the afternoon off. Crisp needles carpeted the lawn beneath the redwood tree in my backyard — combustible material waiting for a spark to ignite under the right conditions.
At present, my home lies just outside the shut-off zone, downward from the fire-prone hills. Today, living in the poorer “flats” has its advantages. But I have no guarantee the power will stay. Getting accurate and complete information has frustrated everyone. PG&E’s website has remained down or only partially functioning since Tuesday.
Many of us are winging it, keeping our fingers crossed that we are not among the unfortunates plunged into the dark. I went to bed with a number of questions for which I had only some answers: What conditions will we wake up to? (Who knows.). How will we make coffee? (Probably not at all.). Will trains run? (Yes.). How will I connect to the Internet? (Travel to somewhere with electricity.) Will we lose all of our perishable food? (Maybe.) How long can it last in the refrigerator? (Apparently, not as long as I thought.) Ice? (Oops. Too late now.)
I rearrange my day for a possible blackout, working on tasks that require electricity and Internet connections in the morning. And I count my blessings that I am not one of the people most vulnerable to the loss of power.
But there is no blessing in what is happening to this state lately. The power outages have sparked anger at PG&E. The company’s offices in Oroville closed Wednesday after vandalism, and a barricade went up around its headquarters in San Francisco for “employee safety.” As a spokesperson said, “We have received feedback from frustrated customers.” Once cut, restoring power isn’t as easy as flipping a switch, and technicians will need to check overhead lines and transformers. This latest disruption won’t end quickly.
More unsettling are the long-term questions about what the shutdown portends: Is this the new normal? Advancing climate change and severe weather events coupled with crumbling infrastructure and a lack of will to invest publicly in fixing these problems don’t inspire much optimism. Newsom expressed disapproval at PG&E’s deferred maintenance that has created this situation, but he offered no clear vision for going forward. Though he said he supported the company’s decision to take “proactive measures” to combat fire dangers, he added, “They’re in bankruptcy because of their terrible management, going back decades,” Newsom said. “It’s time for them to do the right thing. Get out of bankruptcy and get this system into the 21st century.” Until then, we remain at the mercy of PG&E and the winds.
California has the fifth-largest economy in the world. But in recent surveys, more than half of Californians have considered leaving the state and, for the first time, cite homelessness as a top concern. Across San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, apocalyptic scenes of tent encampments spread into new areas each day, it seems. In my corner of East Oakland, garbage from illegal dumping piles up on the streets. Perhaps we never had much confidence in institutions and essential services, but lately everything feels more on edge. Now we can’t even count on the lights staying on.
In their 1960s folk classic “California Dreamin’,” the Mamas and the Papas sang, “All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray,” referring to a cold New York City and their longing to return to California’s safety and warmth. These days the line could easily describe the California of the past few Octobers, as vegetation crisped and browned after a long period of drought and wildfire smoke choked the crystal-blue skies. Is the dream over? Maybe we’re just waking up. And there’s a lot of work to do.