Soon after the power went out early Monday morning of last week, and the temperature inside my Dallas home dropped below 50 degrees, I started thinking about Henry David Thoreau.
In Walden, the neck-bearded author’s account of his “experiment” living in a cabin in the woods, Thoreau writes that “the grand necessity, then, for our bodies, is to keep warm, to keep the vital heat in us.” Everything else we do, whether observing wildlife, sounding the depths of a pond, or taking another Zoom call, depends on bodily warmth. And I was freezing. The things I relied upon to maintain my vital heat, from the electric grid to my uninsulated house, were failing.
The massive power and water outages in my state stemmed from a breakdown of reliability. It’s tempting to respond by striving for greater self-sufficiency, just as Thoreau sought to survive “by the labor of my hands only.” Laudable as his attempt was, he couldn’t really do it. And neither can Texans—or Texas. Thoreau’s life is a lesson not in self-reliance, but in discerning whom and what to rely on, whether you’re one person or a state of 29 million.
Thoreau may seem like an unlikely guide to living in Texas. He vehemently opposed the Mexican-American War (1846–48) that kept the fledgling Lone Star State in the union. He was a radical abolitionist at a time when nearly a third of the population of Texas was enslaved. And he complained in Walden that the country was “in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
Despite this, Thoreau’s spirit of independence actually does reflect Texans’ self-mythology. Texans are proud of their state’s brief history as an independent republic. Talk of secession still comes up in our lunatic politics. And as we now know all too well, Texas has its own electrical grid, barely connected to the rest of the continent.
The Texan vision of self-reliance too often turns cruel. Texans mocked the country’s dependence on their petroleum during the mid-1970s push for a national 55 mph speed limit by applying bumper stickers to their cars that read, “Drive 80, Freeze a Yankee.” (So maybe Thoreau was right about the telegraphs.) Last week, the now-former mayor of a small city in West Texas posted on Facebook that families without power needed to “sink or swim.” He wrote, “It’s your choice! The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING.”
Of course, the power companies and grid managers really do owe us something. We rely on them, and because they weren’t ready for temperatures near zero degrees Fahrenheit, they defaulted. Reliant, the company from which I purchase my electricity on the deregulated energy market, was not true to its name. Neither was the Electric Reliability Commission of Texas, which controls the state’s power grid. I didn’t even know ERCOT existed until this week. Its failure underscores our total dependence on a fragile energy infrastructure we barely notice in ordinary times.