Toronto, Canada - Where were you when the lights went out? That's the question that close to 100 million North Americans are asking themselves at the moment. The Great Blackout of 2003 has now passed into oral history around here, the local version of a catastrophe, an event that showed how dependent this most developed of societies is on fragile systems run by unaccountable people.
It was just after 4.00 on a Thursday afternoon. I was driving around the city in my car, running errands. A CD was playing. Then something struck me, the traffic lights were out. Now, as an honorary South Asian, I'm not one to wonder hugely at the absence of a traffic light.
But this is orderly Toronto. It just doesn't happen here. Further down the road, another light was out, and another. A policeman stood in the middle of an intersection, not even trying to direct traffic, just staring around and shaking his radio as if it didn't work.
I immediately switched over from CD to car radio. Nothing, just the empty sound of static. Dead air. Finally I found a station that was broadcasting in its usual place on the spectrum. The first words I heard were "remain calm". Such an admonition had the opposite effect, as it does, so I panicked when the newscaster told me that a huge swathe of North America was mysteriously without electricity. I started worrying about terrorists, nuclear bombs, computer hackers-the modern beasts that lurk off the edge of our comfortable maps. Here abide Monsters.
What followed was fascinating, once the fear abated. A whole society that depends far too heavily on electrical power was found wanting. Not the people who live here, they behaved admirably. But the systems that rulers and rich folk have put in place. Those failed. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, were stuck in elevators. Subway trains hummed to a halt between stations, trapping commuters in dark tunnels. An economy where soaring property prices keep workers out of downtown, business districts lost its ability to transport labour to market.
Food shops that depend on refrigeration and vast tracts of lighting had to close. Petrol pumps immediately went dry with no electricity to coax abundant fuel from underground tanks. Restaurants couldn't cook food. Only bars were open-not a bad thing, as it happened.
Here in Toronto, as in New York City, Cleveland and dozens of other places, people took to the streets on foot. Walking for hours as a few overcrowded buses lurched by. Drivers who had petrol stopped and offered lifts. Welcome to the Third World. Shop owners gave away melting ice cream to weary walkers. People laughed, told jokes and coped with adversity. Scientists, technicians and workers scrambled to fix the still mysterious faults that deprived untold millions of normal life. In the darkened ivory towers of the business and government districts, men in suits called their lawyers and started to manoeuvre for the blame game.
The low point for many here-your correspondent included-came the morning after. We'd all shown pluck and spirit and enjoyed our moment of surfing disaster successfully. But then we had to face a new day with no coffee, no cooked food. That's when the immensity of the thing began to hit. So too did journalists start uncovering stories of the local poor, the elderly, the gravely ill, and how they were hit. Hard.
A clamour arose from the ranks of the general populace. Fix this! Rumours flew of sabotage, the terrorist strike story was resurrected. Panic returned, albeit of a lesser variety than the fright of the first few moments. What was strongest was a growing sense that the ruling classes had failed miserably. First of all, they clearly didn't have a plan for such a vast failure, although as in New York on 9/11, the emergency services were almost heroic in their response-a mirror image opposite of the muddle at the top. Secondly, legal process took precedence over accountability and openness. Fingers of blame pointed in all directions but explanations were vague or misleading, on the advice of an expensive lawyer preparing a lawsuit.
Even now, more than a week later, Canada's largest, most important city is on half power. A heat wave continues unrelieved by air conditioning, many industries are running at half speed. Not lawyer's offices of course, they're burning the midnight oil. Literally. The veneer of civilisation that developed countries presume to champion when they interact with the "under-developed" of the world is a sham. Paper thin, driven by greed and short-termism. It's amazing what you can see when the lights go out.