Why I relish the PG&E power fiasco

Of course we kept the lights on! That misguided monolith gave us no incentive not to.

Published April 7, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

Something went wrong with the local utility company and it started turning our lights off and on. This had never happened before and it was unsettling, like finding your mom passed out on Percodan. The company, Pacific Gas & Electric, had been eager to be deregulated in order to finally play free-market capitalism the way it's supposed to be played. But shortly into the game, the many small companies it had always screwed before tore its flesh like weasels and took its money.

That was when the lights started going off and on.

Now PG&E has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Not that we don't relish it. Just in a purely visceral way, do we not secretly live for that moment when the Oldsmobile door handle comes off in Daddy's hand and the fine fallibility of man is laid bare for our hilarious enjoyment? Is there not some grim but droll satisfaction in seeing our grid of power sputter like a drunken uncle and keel over on the floor? (After all, it's ultimately oppressive in its omnipresence and certainly an accomplice in the negligent cultural manslaughter that is suburban sprawl.) And as this week's model of square-jawed former Brown University rugby team captain, now president of a flabbergastingly frivolous dot-com, reports to the scions of Silicon Valley capital that such unscheduled electrical downtime is disincentivising to the strategic relocation plans of restless firms of Silicon Alley and Massachusetts' Route 128, do you not want to sit back in perverse, childish glee and yell "Glah!" at the TV?

I do.

Really, is there anything sweeter in the world than a blinking stoplight swinging in the midnight ocean breeze? Is not disorder the order of all days? Do you not believe, as Mao did, that in chaos lies opportunity? Does it not make us boorish cowards if we start at every falling branch and failing switch? Should we not always be prepared for things to fall apart, so when they do, we react with grace and good humor?

To those of us who see in big companies an autocracy that bodes ill for democracy and freedom, the contemplation of their meltdown brings feelings of deep tranquility. Attribute this to perversity or discernment, as you choose: When they go bust, something in the human spirit perks up and goes looking for the bubble bath. But then, after those first precious moments of serendipitous darkness, groping for matches and a candle, the bath water cools, and so does our ardor for the unexpected.

Certainly our ardor cools when everyone's toilet begins to stink. After I arrived in California in 1976, all the toilets began to stink because no one was flushing because we were saving water because there was a drought because it just doesn't rain much here. Our showers became as furtive and rushed as a nooner with the boss's wife and we washed our hands with the stealth of snipers. For a while there, it looked like it would never rain again. But the real reason people cemented over their lawns and went around stinky and itchy was not that they suddenly saw that through voluntary cooperation we could halt the destruction of our water resources and the general rape and destruction of the planet. They did so because of high fines. For a few reptilian survivalists for whom 40 degrees indoors is as good as 72, who don't really need showers because their blood is nothing but apple juice and wheat grass, and for the idle rich and the unemployed who could afford to spend an hour to go five miles on public transit, voluntary self-restraint required no major life adjustments. For the rest of us voracious plunderers of Gaia, harsh punitive measures were required.

And so it is again. Somewhere along the way we forgot that only a barbarian civilization would put lights all over the house at Christmastime, and take long, luxuriant hot showers and baths, and run the dishwasher in the middle of the day, and use air conditioning when it's hot. We opened the pamphlets sent to us by our utility company and read about energy-efficient appliances, weather-sealing, insulation and the like as we might peruse Martha Stewart Living, mildly charmed by the evident ingenuity but sure it was mainly the province of people far more evolved.

I am just one voracious and selfish simpleton among many, but isn't it patently absurd that any company would ever try to persuade its customers to buy less of its product? Was there ever any compelling economic incentive for PG&E to sell less energy, i.e. reduce its own revenues? The company mailed out many informative and well-designed brochures on insulation and energy-efficient appliances, but those had the odor of some PUC-mandated feel-good upright-corporate-citizen type balderdash. How can any company in business to sell lots of its stuff can be expected to diligently persuade its customers to buy less? Unless management understood that without conservation, the company would be crushed under the weight of excess demand? There were probably engineers in PG&E who understood that, but nothing speaks louder than money, not in big companies and not in the public. What makes people conserve? High rates. Not environmental philosophy. Economic incentive. When our rates go up, we'll start to conserve. Why? Because we're simpletons! We don't care a whit for philosophy! What has Europe got that we don't? Enlightened philosophy? High gas prices!

Colorful brochures on recycled paper still come with our bills. They tell us how to cut down on energy use. I have always felt toward them like a thirsty drinker might feel toward a bartender who cautioned moderation. What do you care, you're selling the stuff! Gimme another! Of course, a drunk can wreck your bar and ruin your day, especially if he gets hold of the seltzer hose.

So now there's something comical about this half-crazed beast, PG&E, that's been caged by regulators throughout its recent rapacious, snarling life, being freed by deregulation and getting promptly devoured by leaner, meaner, more unscrupulous weasels who, never caged, never lost their razor teeth, their killer instincts, their fighting trim. And what did PG&E execs think? That after long confinement its sheer size made it a match for any smaller company? The coyotes brought it down like a frightened gazelle and we are so perverse that even though we're the ones getting screwed, we can't help cheering.

In a moment of amnesia caused by too much sun, we Californians forgot for an instant that all words of large corporations, however honey-coated, are meant only to stun us like goats while we're strip-searched and pick-pocketed. We Californians apparently have not yet fully accepted this fact.

We reacted to the news of skyrocketing utility rates with all the aplomb of a condemned man who, led to the platform and noosed, begins to dimly sense that the judge was serious and cries out, "I thought you were kidding!" as the trap door opens. The hangman in the PG&E overalls shrugs and walks calmly to his truck, and millions of Californians swing clueless in the breeze.

So tonight, when my thoughts are clear and the streetlights have been turned off to save energy, I will climb to the roof of my San Francisco house with a battery-powered bullhorn, and I will inform my neighbors in a level but metallic voice, "We're simpletons and fools! We are all simpletons and fools. That is all." I will climb down the ladder, sink to my knees and shudder in frustration and outrage. Then I'll heat some bath water on the stove, if the gas is still on.

By Cary Tennis

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