Scared of the dark?

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on Italy's blackout.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Are we really still afraid of the dark? The power cut that plunged Italy into darkness on Saturday night was the latest unusual blackout to occur during the past two months, from the United States and Canada to London and Denmark. Each time, some bright sparks have sought to enlighten us with dark gossip and conspiracy theories, like children scaring one another with ghost stories in the night.

When London’s August power failure followed New York’s more serious blackout, many demanded to know whether it could ‘really be a coincidence’ that these two events occurred ‘only’ two weeks (and, err, 3,000 miles) apart. ‘Is it then merely coincidence,’ asks one Dutch reader in a comment posted on the BBC’s website after Italy’s weekend blackout, ‘that each of the affected European countries capitulated to US pressure over the Iraq war? If Spain goes black next week, we’ll know.’ Presumably by this paranoid standard we should also infer that the frequent power failures in Third World countries opposed to the Iraq war are part of a plot by US oil giants.

Other doom and gloom merchants claim that the blackouts prove how our energy-greedy industrialised societies are exposing us to everything from man made global warming to gridlocked transport systems. These reactions say rather more about a temporary loss of power to the rational side of the brain than about any real energy crisis. Let’s lighten up. Blackouts are always inconvenient, but rarely the major disaster that some imagine. The one in New York was its first of any consequence for 26 years; Italy’s struck in the middle of Saturday night, and power was restored to northern cities before many awoke on Sunday morning.

These blackouts do reveal something about energy policy: not that we consume ‘too much’, whatever that means, but that we produce and distribute too little. In an age of futuristic debates about the internet, genetic science and nanotechnology, there is no reason why we should be let down by such a tried and trusted technology as electricity generation.

The problems could readily be overcome by major long-term investment in infrastructure (so long as it is not wasted on such eco-stunts as windfarms, which seem better designed to meet the energy needs of the Middle Ages than the 21st century).

Even more importantly, public reactions to the blackouts throw light on the way that we misuse our personal and communal energies today. Away from the paranoid fantasists, the blackouts seem to have been marked by all-too-rare displays of human solidarity.

Many commentators expressed surprise that, rather than marauding through the darkened streets, New Yorkers spent the summer blackout sitting outside, talking to neighbours they might never had met before (even if one major topic of conversation did seem to be the TV shows they were missing). The London power cut was marked by talk of ‘a new Blitz spirit’ as commuters struggled home. And when the lights went out in Rome, the thousands attending an all-night street festival stuck together through the dark and the rain.

It’s sad that we need an unusual setback to surprise us that people actually pull together or show us the importance of community. The energy, transport and technology systems on which we rely daily provide a practical demonstration of our interdependence. Yet in cultural terms, we tend to cut ourselves off in an increasingly atomised existence behind closed doors. Many are so wary of involvement that they appear to have stronger feelings about celebrities such as David Blaine than about real people in their own lives.

This ‘survivalist’, near-siege mentality has been highly detrimental to community ties. Yet when a genuine emergency arises, we immediately reach out to one another. A power blackout acts as a powerful reminder that it helps if you know who lives down the street, rather than bumping into them for the first time in the dark. Apart from anything else, it makes it much easier to knock and ask to borrow that candle. This is a far remove from the contemporary attitude of institutionalised mistrust, displayed by those American hotels that threw all their guests out on the street during the blackout, for ‘health and safety’ reasons of course.

Even those of us with a forceful aversion to community singing can sense that it is more comforting in times of trouble than whistling alone in the dark. We shouldn’t have to wait for another power cut to tell us to look on the bright side of living in proper communities. Although, on the bright side, more blackouts might just boost the falling birthrate (an even greater worry in Italy than in the UK), if not pep up the Tory party’s new ‘Have-a-baby-for-Britain’ policy.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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