On Wednesday night, I was sitting in my office, printing documents and chatting with my husband when the lights went out. The lights, the computer, the printer. Silence, darkness as we looked out the window into the snowy night. The documents, half-printed. The to-do list. Everything we had planned for the evening (and as it turned out, for the rest of the week) would have to wait.

We began an entirely different type of conversation, which I’m sure was happening in homes all across our neighborhood. Where are the candles? Do we have batteries for the radio? How cold will the house get before the heat comes back on? Should I use my cell phone to find out if neighbors are also out? (How much battery must be preserved?)

Losing power can be a startling experience, but I can’t say we were surprised. Over the last few years in our suburban Maryland home, we’ve lost power at least four times, for about 24 hours each. This power outage was two days after President Obama’s State of the Union which alluded to our national infrastructure failures: “when our own engineers graded our nation’s infrastructure, they gave us a D.”[1] Too often when we face power outages, we blame the energy company, and there was plenty of that in this outage. But we usually forget the broader context of our infrastructure failures: tight budgets and failure to plan for the future.

There’s another element to the power outages that we forget to take into account. Our usually weather-tame area has been hit by quite a series of storms over the last few years, including blizzard storms dumping more than two feet of snow (twice!) last winter, and a freak tornado (which left us without power and with a broken gutter on our roof) last summer. The storm that took down our power last week was what they call “thundersnow” – the rarity of thunder and lightning in a winter snowstorm.[2] These unusual storms are playing havoc with our already underfunded infrastructure.

Once we’d gotten the candles lit and the flashlights going, a silence fell over the house. My husband went to sleep early. I was wide awake, with far less than usual to do. It may have simply been a coincidence that I had begun Bill McKibben’s new book, Eaarth, earlier that afternoon. And I continued reading it in my silent house, by candlelight.

In Eaarth, McKibben argues that our environmental failures have already changed our planet beyond the comfortable and safe zones of climate that have supported human civilization for ten thousand years. We now live on a different planet, with much more difficult climatic patterns.

I know you have noticed. You might not have been paying close attention. It may have been on the periphery. But I’m sure that wherever you live, someone has said to you, “Isn’t the weather weird?” I’m sure you’ve heard the weather forecaster say, “This is an unusual storm” because it has a hurricane shape even though it’s a snowstorm, or because it has thunder and lightning in the winter. Maybe the string of more intense hurricanes and flooding around the world has read like a series of distant headlines. Maybe you’ve said it can’t be “global warming” because it’s so incredibly cold outside. We can’t tie every storm to a computer model about climate change. But we must acknowledge that our climate is changing. Eaarth presents detail after detail, hammering it into our hearts: we’ve already damaged and changed the climate of our planet, our only home.

McKibben concludes his dramatic first chapter this way:

“So, let’s review. The planet we inhabit has a finite number of huge physical features. Virtually all of them seem to be changing rapidly: the Arctic ice cap is melting, and the great glacier above Greenland is thinning, both with disconcerting and unexpected speed. The oceans, which cover three-fourths of the earth’s surface, are distinctly more acid and their level is rising; they are also warming, which means the greatest storms on our planet, hurricanes and cyclones, have become more powerful…. The great rain forest of the Amazon is drying on its margins and threatened at its core. The great boreal forest of North America is dying in a matter of years. The great storehouses of oil beneath the earth’s crust are now more empty than full. Every one of these things is completely unprecedented in the ten thousand years of human civilization.” [See a picture of the North American forests dying, which I saw myself in Colorado last year, at right.]

I have been a Jewish-environmental activist for more than ten years, and educating in politically conservative communities has taught me caution in speaking about climate change. But when I read this book in the dark, in the middle of the thundersnow storm, it gave me a jolt.

I don’t know what to do about the crisis we’ve found ourselves in, and I haven’t finished Eaarth yet (although I’ve been reading it obsessively all weekend). But I encourage you to read it. And to share your ideas about what we, as a Jewish environmental community, should do right now.

If there’s one thing I believe in, it’s the possibility of people working together to make a difference. That’s what this Jewcology site is all about.

I hope we can learn from each other, and maybe, in so doing, move from being “powerless” to empowered.


[1] Factcheck.org gives us the source: The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. an overall grade of “D,” — a “poor” rating — in its 2009 infrastructure report card (the same rating that they gave us in 2005).

[2] http://www.tbd.com/blogs/weather/2011/01/rare-thundersnow-coming-for-the-d-c-region–7685.html

3 Replies to "Powerless"

  • Deborah Klee Wenger
    January 30, 2011 (4:04 pm)

    Bearing witness to the truth opens the possibility for transformation.

  • Joelle Novey
    January 30, 2011 (5:44 pm)

    I think we have to start by grieving the enormous reality of what McKibben is saying. So much of the Torah, through the ages, has assumed correctly that a predictable climate would always endure. The challenge for Jewish communities to grieve the loss of that predictability, first. And then have a conversation, together, about how we might move forward with the major decisions we still have to make about how much our decisions will still continue to disrupt the climate.

  • Evonne Marzouk
    January 30, 2011 (6:52 pm)

    I think you are right that grieving is a part of what we have to go through. And yet grieving is so – so “un-American.” Maybe we can find a way to use Jewish values to help us come to terms with what is real.

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