I’m living in a movie
It feels odd, living in the early scenes of an apocalypse movie.
The toxic taste of city-spanning smoke is a seasonal normality here now, as enormous pieces of California burn in the fall. So last night we drove an hour and a half outside the city to my partner’s place for clean air. We got there about an hour after our utility company (PG&E) turned the power back on after two days without, but an hour later, they turned it off again.
They do this now, because this for-profit company has spent the last few decades doing exactly that: making a profit. They did this with a single mindedness that precluded maintaining their infrastructure, which lately has a habit of starting fires that have killed roughly 130 people, destroyed thousands of homes, and caused untold pain (and expense). They’ve picked up a habit of breaking their own records for most destructive fires in California history. (And for bonus, they’re also the villain of Erin Brockovich fame.)
They had warnings, of course. For example, a state inspector in 2009 told them a stretch of gas pipeline was unsafe. They did nothing. In 2010 it exploded, killing eight people, leveling an entire neighborhood, and sending a wall of flame roughly 1000 feet in the air.
That year PG&E made $4.8 billion in profits, spent $79 million on lobbying, and increased executive pay by 94% for its top five executives. (Plus receiving $1 billion in tax rebates while paying no taxes 2008-2010. See: lobbying.) A later independent audit by the state found that despite making hundreds of millions more than what they were authorized to charge, PG&E actively diverted money away from safety programs towards executive bonuses instead.
Even now, as the bill for decades of selfish incompetence comes due, the new CEO makes $2.5 million per year, plus another $3 million his first day, and an annual equity award worth yet another $3.5 million. While California burns and people die.
This is unregulated capitalism, exploitative capitalism, American capitalism. Which brings me back to the movie I’m living.
A couple years ago I sat next to a German guy on a flight from San Francisco to Amsterdam who had just finished some kind of study of PG&E. Germany’s electricity sector isn’t perfect, but they don’t start fires or prioritize corporate paychecks over the safety and well being of the population. Instead, Germany pairs effective government regulation with responsible capitalism and human decency.
So! All I have to do in this movie we’re living is travel back in time and somehow get him to take over PG&E instead of studying it. Normally this would be a challenge, but this is a movie, and this is California, so I know just who to ask for help.