Have you ever felt you were living in the middle of a metaphor?
Last Monday, when the power went out at our place in Austin, Texas, my wife Jean and I headed to where we had stored our emergency preparedness kit. We had gotten it a long while back and had tucked it away for when we might need to use it. I can honestly say I hadn’t given it much thought in years because, thankfully, it wasn’t necessary. Until suddenly it was. To our consternation (and a few fatalistic chuckles), we unpacked the batteries and found them corroded. It turns out, we had forgotten to make sure we had what we needed to “be prepared.” And so, apparently, had Texas, albeit with much more tragic outcomes.
Being prepared is one of those things we expect from the government. Whether it’s military preparedness, inspecting our infrastructure, or having the tools ready to battle a deadly pandemic, these are the kinds of societal goods that are best suited to the public sector. Or at least that was the way we used to think of things. I have seen the change up close in Texas, back in Washington, and across much of the United States: politicians have gotten very good at planning for the literal and metaphorical “sunny day.” Not so much when it comes to the unexpected, even when the unexpected should have been expected.
On one level, It is a mindset that is perfectly understandable and seems a particularly strong human trait. It is hard to sacrifice for a danger that feels remote. Fight or flight? We got that instinct. Fixing that loose stair? That can wait. And for politicians, who measure their lives by election cycles, spending tax dollars or political capital on distant needs can feel counterproductive to their own narrow self-interest. You don’t usually see ribbon cuttings at warehouses, or signing ceremonies for contingency funds. But that’s the whole point. Our representatives should be public servants first and foremost. They should anticipate problems that will far outlast their term in office, or even their term on Earth.
This friction between the needs of the community and the needs of the politician will always exist. But in recent years something else has emerged that has been particularly toxic and deadly. The modern Republican Party, in particular, has bowed down to a mantra that government itself is the problem. Starve the beast. Privatize. Deregulate. Downsize the public sector. Remove oversight. And at the same time denigrate science, expertise, and anyone idealistic enough to want to work for a good greater than themselves. That, in their view, is for suckers.
As long as everything is going right, this approach can seem to be working. But anyone who has ever had to weed a garden or clean up their children's toys knows that the universe tends towards disorder. If you leave any machine unchecked for too long it will break. And that’s what happened this week in Texas. That’s what’s happening with the pandemic and our climate crisis. Indeed, these problems along with many other looming crises, have been predicted. Many times. You can look it up. Although I bet you don't have to. Because you know it as well.
In Texas, you can add another overlay to this mindset. We pride ourselves on a spirit of rugged individualism, the myth of the cowboy alone on the prairie driving the herd through a storm. Of course most of us aren’t cowboys, and anyone who has spent time around cowboys knows that even they lean on each other when times are hard.
But as this myth of self-reliance has spread from proud individuals to the local, state, and federal government, damage has occurred in its wake. Case in point: ERCOT. As the world has come to know, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas is responsible for maintaining approximately 90% of the Texas power grid (with the exception of El Paso and parts of the panhandle and East Texas). This differs from the rest of the continental United States, which receives power from two federally-controlled sources: the Western Interconnection (covering areas west of the Rocky Mountains) or the Eastern Interconnection (covering areas east of the Rocky Mountains).
Under the mantra of independence from federal regulation, the Lone Star state said they would go their own way and effectively seceded from the national grid. That autonomy and intentional isolation seemed on its surface to be sufficient, that is, until we needed help. As Winter Storm Uri brought record low temperatures, we were caught off guard and unprepared.
The demand for power spiked as people turned up the thermostats, which far outpaced the supply. Tools like gas-powered plants or wind turbines were not weatherized for the conditions (another foreseeable failure of long-term planning), and other solutions such as importing power from the Eastern or Western Interconnection were not possible due to the state’s isolated structure. Texas was left on its own for better or worse, and “better” had swiftly left town. This past week’s grim circumstances show how prioritizing “self-reliance” over being prepared for the collective good can literally be deadly.
When the lights did eventually go out and as the temperature dropped, something remarkable happened. Texans reached out to each other, saving lives while infused with the power of community. This should come as no surprise. Americans are empathetic, resilient, and resourceful people when needed. As we saw with Hurricane Harvey in 2017, neighbor rushed to help neighbor as floodwaters rose. This community spirit cut across racial, social, economic, and even citizenship lines. Friends, acquaintances, familiar passersby, total strangers —all realized that we were in this together. I felt it personally and read about it on the local news. But here’s the tragedy. How much pain could have been avoided if our leaders fostered our sense of community before disaster hit?
It cannot be denied that money, power, and privilege, are benefits at any point in life, and even more so during a crisis. But, if you can excuse the sentimentality, some of the best things in life are free and ties to the community are priceless. The comfort of knowing there is someone to check in on you, will bolster your strength and survival. That, in part, is why the state’s response to the storm and its aftermath is so dispiriting. Imagine the clamor of voices yearning to be heard, desperately seeking assistance, only to be told various versions of “there’s no help coming and don’t expect any.” That is a sobering response. That is an unacceptable response. Behind that kind of response are incompetent —perhaps criminally incompetent— and empathy-lacking politicians.
So what can we do to turn the tide? One obvious answer is organizing and voting. The people who have presided over a Texas that is incompetent, selfish, short-sighted, dismissive of facts, cozy with lobbyists, and divisive will be on ballots in the future. After the cries for help have faded, after the news cycle has moved on, they will be counting on us to forget their transgressions. Once we get warm again, once the lights come back on, once we return to “normal,” they will expect us to put this experience out of mind.
But here is where the spirit of community can endure. Will the citizens of Texas hold them accountable? Will we not forget? If we keep doing business as usual, then we can expect the same results —or worse— in the future. The world is only getting more uncertain. And that means we have no choice but to plan for our new reality.
So, do we remember this moment and promise never to forget? For those of you in Texas, do you now vow to help create a safer, more just, and equitable state? For those of you elsewhere, know that this lack of foresight is not unique to Texas, or even to one political party. Are you ready to demand of your leaders to not put off for tomorrow what must be done today? And if they fail to do so, hold them accountable? Will you engage with your friends, neighbors, and people outside of your social circles to effect this change? We can drastically reduce the chances of this ever happening again. It begins with a vow to never forget —and to be prepared.
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