Feb 21, 2021
With temperatures below freezing for five days in a row, millions of people in Texas lost heat and/or lights and/or water. Dozens died trying to keep warm, using a charcoal grill or running their cars without ventilation. Some died when their oxygen was cut off by the power failure. Some died when water for dialysis machines cut off. Some froze to death in their bed. Some, homeless in a society unable to provide reasonably priced housing, died in the streets.
It was a rolling catastrophe that kept gaining traction. As temperatures fell, demand went up for electricity. The Texas grid, which barely has enough capacity in normal times, ordered “rolling blackouts”. In the cold, almost a quarter of the state’s generating units couldn’t start back up. Pumps keeping natural gas lines flowing sputtered; back-up diesel engines wouldn’t start. Lines delivering natural gas to electricity generating units froze up, putting them off line. Wind turbines froze, so did coal plants that produce electricity. A nuclear power plant tripped off when water failed.
At the first prediction of cold weather, some companies generating electricity raised their prices, as much as a thousand percent overnight. In a society where capital rules, that’s a normal part of “doing business”. When prices hit a certain mark, companies that distribute electricity were hit by computer-directed automatic shutdowns. Also normal, but in the cold many couldn’t start again.
On Tuesday, four million households were without electricity. Without electricity, furnaces cut off. Even homes that kept electricity lost heat when natural gas lines froze. With heat off, plumbing froze up, pipes burst. Mains that deliver water to people’s homes—and also to hospitals and emergency services—cracked. Water oozed out. By the end of the week, 14 million households either had no water at all, or no drinkable water.
None of this had to happen. It was the result of conscious choices: utilities chose not to insulate their pipes, gas lines, turbines, water mains, etc. They chose not to use additives that lower the freezing point of liquids. They chose not to repair cracks in lines and mains.
Those are simple things to do—but every one requires investment. A certain share of the total wealth produced in society must be put back to maintain and upgrade the infrastructure, instead of where much of it goes today: to the benefit of the wealthy class that owns the economy.
The apologists for capital pretend cold like this never hits Texas. That’s not true. Texas lived through a cold spell as severe as this in 1989, and once again in 2011. Utilities simply didn’t prepare.
State government ignored the utilities’ lack of preparation. It chose to protect profit instead of life. Local governments, supplying water to cities, didn’t upgrade centuries-old water mains. They chose to use tax money to upgrade profit.
It was a perfect storm of neglect, consciously chosen neglect. In Texas—but also throughout the country.
Behind this severe cold, lurks the problem of global warming. It’s not a contradiction that warming might produce more cold. This is what scientists have long predicted. The warming of the atmosphere not only increases the earth’s average temperature, it increases the likelihood of extreme weather, both hot AND cold. It increases the intensity of storms and wind.
We can be sure that a system that will not winterize lines, preparing for an occasional severe winter, will not be bothered to confront the larger problem of global warming. This requires investment to prevent the whole production machine from polluting the atmosphere. That will not happen unless the drive for profit is torn up.
Capitalism has always chosen profit over human life. But in this period of economic crisis, its choices are even more deadly.
Working people also have a choice to make: to put life before the profit-making machine; to understand that this machine must be smashed.