This morning, an icy December predawn, about 5:30, Oncor, our utility company, performed a miracle.  I’m not sure if anyone actually said, “Let there be light!”; but for a certainty, there was light—and heat—and it was good.  After more than 55 hours without electrical power, my wife and I, our three animals, and an array of tropical fish and plants were rescued from gray, wintertime darkness and room-temperature frigidity and well on the way back to creature comfort.  To say it was a relief is an understatement; to call it a miracle—well, that depends.

Compared with people who have been severely injured and horrifically devastated by severe natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados, and flooding, this four-day spate of wintery weather and two-day power outage that completely but only temporarily paralyzed an eight- or nine-county area of north Texas hardly qualifies as a minor paper cut.  In spite of the inconvenience, the potential loss of food, and maybe some broken pipes, our main problem was frustration and boredom. We had little or no light to read by or to do other distracting things and were condemned to makeshift meals and living with our own personal funk for a couple of days; we were almost completely cut off from news and word of friends and family.

Our only access to the world, really, was via cellular devices, which rapidly used up battery.  The only way I could recharge them was to skate out over more than four inches of black ice to one of our vehicles, fire it up, and sit there shivering and idling while I tried to find some comprehensive report on the radio.

That didn’t always work, depending on timing.  I did collect a complete listing of mattress sales, school closures, and event cancellations, toll-free numbers to obtain everything from dietary supplements to financial and spiritual advice, and I became convinced that the idiocy level of Americans who listen to and participate in “talk radio” was far higher than I imagined.  There also was a lot of cheery Christmas music, mostly associated with ads for shopping, including “Winter Wonderland” and “Let It Snow.”  I scrolled frantically through the apps on my dying phone and tablet, searching for at least one that would provide the latest information about power outages and the Estimated Time of Repair (ETR) for my area, but without result.  As vehicular fuel depleted, I, like millions of Americans, realized that I had become totally dependent on electricity.

This is hardly astounding.  It’s obvious that our society runs entirely on “juice,” the industry colloquialism for electrical power.  Not only do we rely on it for almost everything by way of heat and air conditioning, certainly lighting and food storage and preparation, we also have constructed our domiciles in such a way that we really can’t do much of anything, including washing up or reading instructions on a battery-operated aquarium aerator, without it.  We can “light a candle rather than curse the darkness,” of course; but like most households, the candles we keep handy are mostly for décor and romantic dinner settings—which we never have.  Few provide sufficient light even to attend to bathroom necessities, such as brushing one’s teeth (a useless gesture, if one uses a dentist-recommended electric toothbrush).

Our home, unfortunately, is “all-electric.”  This wasn’t a matter of choice.  Our development wasn’t “piped” or “lined” for natural gas.  This means that we were bereft not only of light and heat but of hot water.  But those who use heating oil (rare in this part of the country) or natural gas were also faced with the problem of electric igniters (as opposed to old-fashioned-but-now-deemed-unsafe pilot lights), electronic thermostats, and blowers or “exchangers” for moving hot air—or sometimes pumps for hot water—to where the air and the water might be used.

For the most part, my wife noted that I was generating a sufficiency of hot air as I complained loud and long about the power company’s tardiness in providing an ETR.

We do have a practical fireplace, and over the dark, cold hours, I burned a half-cord of wood, even exhausting my “specialty” pile, which contains aromatic sticks used for smoking food.  But most people hadn’t laid in much firewood this early in the year, and more have converted their wood-burning hearths to decorative fake flames that emit no more heat than a 40-watt bulb, if they could turn on a bulb, which they couldn’t.  Many couldn’t even light their faux fires, since that required an electric switch.  (Even our regular wood-burner wasn’t designed to heat the room; it’s there for ambience, not warmth.)

The unavoidable truth is that we have become so utterly dependent on electrical power for almost everything (everything) we routinely do that we’re helpless when it’s absent.  All this has come about in a few decades, but for millions, it’s the norm.

I am of an age that I remember wood-burning stoves being commonly used in households, even in kitchens, hand-pumps to extract water from a well or cistern; my polished abilities with outdoor cooking (camping out or backyard grilling) have familiarized me (and equipped me) with open-flame cooking.  But I suspect that many urbanites lack both the materiel and the expertise to do this, even if they have a place where it can be done (homeowner associations are notoriously restrictive about outdoor cooking; some neighborhoods utterly forbid it) and the experience to do it.  (Drought-caused fire dangers have stopped a lot of campfire cooking for weekenders who cannot afford RVs with built-in kitchens.)  As a result, and because of our relatively rural location, which prompts us to keep a well-stocked larder, I was able to slip and slide over the solidly frozen tundra of our deck to a propane grill, from which I could provide hot coffee, hot soup, even a three-course chicken dinner for us to feast on in the arctic environs of our breakfast nook.  We even had hot chocolate with marshmallows.  But our ability to cope isn’t the issue.

The point is that, should some disaster, man-made or natural, disable or destroy our entire electrical grid (my son, an engineer with a large power company, provided me with the correct terminology) for an extended period—like a month, or even longer—things could quickly become desperate.  Transportation and storage of food would be only one problem; buying it would be problematic, too.  Fewer people use cash or, certainly, paper checks these days.  With no juice, cash registers won’t open, let alone ring up a sale; ATMs don’t work; neither do bank computers, gasoline pumps, or traffic lights, or fast-food emporia, or . . . well, that is the point.  Without juice, our entire society is dead in the water, frozen or otherwise.

This is not a cause for major concern to almost anyone, at least most of the time.  We have moved from an era when coal or wood was used domestically for heat and light to a time when we expect to do nothing more than flip a switch to have all we need to keep our lives functional and comfortable.  It’s something few people find in the least remarkable.  Less than a century ago, though, only a minority of homes enjoyed full electrical service (or indoor plumbing or even insulation, for that matter); as recently as three or four decades ago, if you lost power at home, the greatest problem you might have would be to find an oil or gas lamp or rely on a transistor radio for light and information.  These days, unless you have a cellular phone and plenty of backup battery power, if the roads are impassable and the power is out, you are suddenly and completely isolated from the rest of the world.  It could be ending, and you’d be the last to know.

Almost 14 years ago in these pages, I published an essay, “Where Will You Be When the Lights Go Out?” (February 2002).  This weekend the obvious answer was graphically brought home to me in frigid spades.

All of this points, of course, to our need to find a way to ensure continued and increasing amounts of consumable energy.  Green and renewable sources serve as a hedge against depleting finite fossil-fuel foundations, and, of course, there’s nuclear power.  These are all very well, but the availability and amount of such fuels are only one concern.  The delivery of the juice is also a challenge, and the methods we use (overhead wiring, exposed transformers and relay switches, some trailing through overgrown vegetation or suspended by aging poles) belong to a past where one-horse sleighs and ashcans were common; they’re inadequate for our present supply-and-demand requirements.

It’s possible, of course, that as individuals we can adjust our dependency on electrical devices to sustain our lives.  We could stock up on generators and oil lamps, quality flashlights, batteries, and other devices, such as propane grills and heaters.  But these are not satisfactory answers, not apt to be priorities, particularly when budgets are tight and the weather outside is nice enough to invite shopping.

The larger thing to consider, though, is that we have all become so completely reliant on technology and the power that operates it that we may find ourselves helpless in the event of some disaster that will remove it more or less permanently.  The phrase “survival skills” is normally associated with the woodsy quasimilitary types who race around in camo clothing and brandish automatic weapons and hunting knives at the jump of a rabbit.  Perhaps a wider definition of this might be needed, one that could actually become part of the mandatory educational process.  Not everyone is a Scout (Boy or Girl), but some scouting skills might be handy to have.

The question of global warming aside, it’s an observable fact that devastating weather events seem to be increasing across our continent.  “Power outage” is always the subheadline when such disasters are reported.  There is no question that our dependency on electricity and the devices it powers is here to stay and will increase.  But will our common-sense, fundamental skills of getting along without it utterly disappear?  Today, many buildings have no windows that will open.  Stairwells are lighted only temporarily by emergency lamps—and those aren’t omnipresent.  In some newer homes, doors and windows only open if an electric release is pressed.  All our information, in the absence of the daily newspaper (a dying organ, even if it can be delivered), comes to us via electric current.

It’s just a thought, but as we race headlong into the technologically driven lifestyles of the very near future, it might be worth a glance back over our shoulder to see what we’ve lost in the way of knowledge, practical devices, and utilities that seem by comparison to be primitive, even difficult, to use.  I had a lot of time to think about that over the past three or four days.  As a writer, I just kept wishing I had kept my old typewriter, since the only power it required was my fingers, an activity that would, at the very least, have kept my hands warm.