The modern electrical grid is absolutely essential to nearly all of our lives; heating in the dead of winter, cooking with a stove, and charging digital technology. Even personal vehicles, so long-dominated by petroleum-based energy, have now been promised by the Trudeau government to be fully electric by 2035. Yes, electricity rules our lives, and without it the modern world, and the humans who inhabit it, would cease to exist. But what if we lived in a world with no power? There of course have been instances of this during power outages, which are fairly uncommon in Canada. At this very moment, there are likely upwards of thousands of Canadians without access to energy in the form of electricity, which can be tracked in real time on PowerOutage.com. These outages are usually resolved quickly, as authorities are aware of the necessity to keep the power on, and what would ensue if it somehow were to fail for an extended period of time. This urgency comes from the recognition that access to energy transcends consumerist wants or elastic desires, but is, at this stage of human development, a need. I am, however, disheartened by the relationship between individuals and energy sources as one of producer-customers.
On April 5, an ice storm hit Quebec off the shores of the St. Lawrence river, which was especially devastating in Montreal. The next morning, over a million residents were without power, and at least one person died. Thanks to a large mobilization of public utility workers by Hydro-Quebec, the province restored power to most people, and by Saturday, approximately 100,000 remained powerless, an order of magnitude smaller. Unfortunately, human suffering was not totally averted; carbon monoxide poisoning has occurred from using portable heating indoors on cold nights. As Quebec recovers from the debilitating storm, I believe it is imperative for Canadians to ask – what is the relationship between the individual and their energy source?
This may seem like a nonsensical question, but I propose it for a reason. In each link related to the Quebec power outage, there is common, dehumanizing terminology. Each of the four sources the people of Quebec who lost power, some of whom died, and others who still go without, are repeatedly referred to as “customers.” Customers, the CBC says, have no energy to heat their homes or cook dinner. Customers, the CBC says, will have to go a few more days like this. One customer, the CBC says, has died as a result. If my rhetorical style is not sufficiently clear, I am extremely disheartened by the labelling of electricity-dependent individuals as “customers.” The thought of a public necessity being treated as a commodity for citizens to buy and consume, rather than to share, evokes a certain type of depressive bleakness. Take for instance the public control of sidewalks — am I a customer when going for a suburban walk? If an underground landmine blew up a portion, would “customers” lose access to walkways? That may sound absurd, but then so should calling those in Montreal who lost power Hydro-Quebec customers! The crown corporation is a public utility after all, fully owned by the provincial government, and just like the ability to freely walk, access to electricity is a human need, and ought to be a citizen’s right. An April 9 piece in the Ottawa Citizen read:
“Another 50,000 Hydro-Quebec customers should see their power restored by end of day Sunday, the utility said while warning some of its remaining repairs to lines damaged by last week’s deadly ice storm may not be completed until Tuesday.”
Citizens of the province pay for Hydro-Quebec in a similar way that they do for sidewalks via taxes. The demand for these things is not elastic, and they are not produced with the sole of aim of generating profit. If energy is not considered a product, then its consumers should not be considered customers. Labelling those who lost power in Quebec as customers, rather than human beings, is a clear message to the public that energy is a commodity, in the same way Dorito chips are. And what an insistence it is! I have yet to find a media outlet that labels energy consumers as anything other than customers. Instead of sourcing 10 articles, search for “April 2023 Quebec power outage,” and examine the results. The media, however, is just quoting the public officials themselves! On Hydro-Quebec’s own website, it refers to “customers” whenever individuals are in question, such as on their statistics regarding service interruptions by region. When even government-owned industry views their relationship with the public as that of producer-customer, then complete commodification is truly embedded in the minds and mechanics of society.
The reader of this diatribe might scoff at the apparent inconsequentialism, perhaps viewing the tedious semantics of government and media publications as not all that meaningful. But might I suggest that the constant portrayal of energy-dependent citizens as customers of the government may have wider implications. Might I add that it says something deeper about our society — that, however much we view ourselves as inheritors of an enlightened liberalism that prizes the dignity of the individual above all else, maybe we instead drown it in atomized sorrows? How does it feel to have no relationship to your source of energy, no ability to obtain it whatsoever, other than through callous cash payments? It makes me feel like I have no control over the essential elements of my life. Again to compare, since it does such a terrific job to illuminate the absurdity: are school children customers of their public school? Is an assault victim a customer of the police who stopped it in the act? Are you a customer of the Earth or atmosphere when inhaling oxygen? Such framing of human relationships is dehumanizing.
Is this a deliberate psychological trick to slowly ease the public into accepting an energy privatization program? Or simply evidence of a government and media so immersed in corporate commercial culture that they are ignorant of the effect of their words? Regardless, there is a clear problem.