October 1, 2003
Trapped Inside the Grid
We have the talent, humanity, and ability to design ourselves out of our gluttonous energy habits. Now we need to find the will.
The lights flicker and then they’re out; the phones go dead; the fridge stops humming. We gather at the large windows facing 23rd Street to check out what’s going on. The gym across the way is dark, but traffic moves well and people walk at the usual New York pace. Cell phones appear, but few seem to be connecting. Small groups begin to form on the street below. Someone in the office finds a portable radio; power is out all the way up to Canada. When our eyes meet, we see that fearful look reminiscent of 9/11, and some of us say the word “terrorism.” Others counsel calm. We’re experiencing “Blackout 2003,” as the media would later label the event.
We leave the office and file down the dark staircase. As we set out to walk to our homes the streets have grown crowded. Radios play in parked cars; we stop and listen as a fire truck speeds by. I think of how everything I do is hooked into the great electric power grid that just failed. Everything in my apartment downtown—the front-door buzzer, the phone, the radio-alarm clock, even the toilet—is plugged into now-dead outlets.
The huge wrought-iron gate of my building has been propped open. How will I walk up the pitch-black stairs and hallways? A small group with a flashlight comes along and invites me to go with them. There’s water left in my boiler, but it won’t last long. And there’s no way to flush the toilet anyway.
I spend the next morning, a sweltering Friday in August, searching for food and water. There’s some cool watermelon and a bottle of water—double the price of what they were yesterday—at a nearby bodega. It’s nearly 3 p.m. when I hear the fridge click on. By then I have gone though all of my catalogs looking for things like an FM radio/flashlight set and candle sticks with diffusers designed for reading—knowing all too well that shopping will not get us out of this fix.
When I turn on the TV I hear the new mantra adopted by reporters: upgrade the grid, bring it into the twenty-first century. But there’s little talk about the possibilities of life off the grid or alternate energy sources or the ways we use the energy we produce. Why does a perfectly good lock and key system need to turn into an electric eye? And if it must, why is there no mechanical redundancy designed into these locks? Why are buildings kept so cold during summertime that you can catch a chill just by walking past the front door? Why did I buy the cool-looking radio alarm clock that had its reproachful blank stare on me throughout the blackout? We need to seriously question everyday decisions about how we produce and use energy, when we use it, and what we use it for, just as Santa Fe architect Ed Mazria has done for three decades (see “Turning Down the Global Thermostat,” page 102). Ed is convinced that architects have the skill, humanity, and intelligence to help us out of our current dangerous reliance on the grid and its polluting ways. I know he’s right. Countless design decisions have gone into producing our system of energy use, and we must question all of them.
While living through the worst blackout in New York City history, I tried not to move a muscle. I forced myself to think about the house that Ed Mazria built in Santa Fe. I went into fantasy mode: If I were living in such a place, I would not be a soggy victim of the utility company. Instead errant breezes caught by well-placed windows would cool my skin. My solar-powered fridge would be filled with cool drinks and refreshing fruits.
I envisioned cool autumn days and thought about the upcoming symposiums we’ve organized with Ed. He is determined that everyone who practices architecture, hires an architect, passes a law, or writes about the built environment confront the problem of global warming and find the “Key to the Global Thermostat,” the title of the seminars we’ve planned for Santa Fe (September 20), Los Angeles (October 16), and New York (November 5). I’m also determined: determined that no one else should ever have to spend a sweltering day trapped inside the grid.