Seeing in the Dark


The second week of December, an ice storm hit the Plains states, and thousands of families lost power, some for a week or more.

My family was among them, and the experience gave me an epiphany I call the Light Bulb Theory of Materialism. Never mind the other manifestations of electricity — climate control, communication, transportation, mass production. The light bulb is the foundation of consumption.

My grandparents did not have power in their rural Kansas homes until they were young adults, in the 1940s. But those of us under 80 have no clue just how dark it is without electric light.

I found out after the ice storm. Once the last rays slipped over the horizon about 6, efficient completion of tasks ended. Nine ornamental candles and two wind-up flashlights did little to cut the gloom. My family learned that casually leaving items on the nearest surface is a luxury of being able to see. Finding carelessly placed toiletries, pajama pants and keys became futile until daylight. And to our repeated chagrin, we kept losing the flashlights.

We tripped and stumbled from one room to the next. One evening I set a gallon of milk on what I assumed was a clear counter. The jug toppled and milk ran under the refrigerator.

That these trials came just before Christmas made them poignant. For centuries communities have celebrated winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, with an evergreen tree to mark the return of light, and with it, life. My tree stood in shadow. There was little incentive to carefully arrange it and the house with ornamental baubles and gadgets I’ve collected over years. To bring pleasure, all needed light.

The power outage taught me the fragile feeling of living in the dark, the helplessness relieved by the ancient, universal practice of solstice festivities. But being without electricity also showed me how modern access to light has profoundly changed our lives and the way we view consumption and accumulation.

The staggering volume of possessions in our homes — decorative, recreational, or utilitarian — comes only with bright lighting. Without it, much of what we own is reduced to stuff. Which we stumble over during the night.

Though most of the stores in town never lost electricity and were open right after the storm, several of my colleagues said they hadn’t done any Christmas decorating or shopping during the week their houses were unlighted.

Without the electric light bulb, our balance of trade with China would be instantly reversed.

We live in an affluent society that makes conservation and simplicity a difficult exercise in willpower. But the drawbacks of materialism shift from ideological to practical in a dark house.

It is not coincidental that my grandparents’ house was small and spare, though they raised six children. Grandma had a few pictures on the wall. A single cabinet in one corner held her treasures. Family life centered in the kitchen, the brightest room.

I’m glad to have my electric light bulbs back, but I’m also thinking about how to prepare for another blackout. Scientists and engineers have warned about the aging grid’s vulnerability. It also will suffer under heavier heat load and stronger storms predicted to come with climate change.

Preparation for possible failures should include investing in improved alternative technologies, such as better light-emitting diodes, an efficient illumination, and decentralization of the grid, or "micropower."

But more important, we should reassess what’s really needed to live a good life, with or without the light bulb. That’s my resolution for the New Year.

KRISTIN VAN TASSEL teaches English at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas.

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