It’s not stealing, it’s reappropriating

Lights Out

Apparently a memo recently went around Frederiksberg Municipality reminding employees that charging their private devices from office electrical outlets is “on the same level as theft.”

I can understand that there are some employees who charge their private electric bicycles, scooters, various batteries for phones, iPads, and the like. This is not allowed—in fact is on the same level as theft.

Technically (by which I mean legally and logically) I think the author of that memo has a point.

The price of electricity is very high right now. Electricity used by municipal workers on the job is paid for by the municipality, whose bills are paid by its taxpayers. Why should taxpayers have to pay to charge the private belongings of municipal employees?

How would those employees feel if strangers wandered into their home to charge their own private devices?

It’s also technically something like theft, I imagine, to go into a McDonalds, order a single hamburger, and fill your pockets or purse—or the trunk of your car—with hundreds of condiment packets.

Yes, they’re complementary (“love the sweater, cutie! and your hair looks great!”), but there’s a common understanding that they’re intended to be used with your purchase, not squirreled away for later use at home. Hoarding fast food condiments, napkins, sporks, sugars, and other freebies probably isn’t illegal, but it’s certainly unethical. If everyone did it, fast food joints would have to stop offering unlimited condiments—as many franchises already have.

Right or wrong, legal or criminal, ethical or depraved: I suspect there are going to be a lot of people charging their privately-owned devices at work this winter.

I almost hope there are, because it’s such a beautiful opportunity to help them learn from their own behavior, and to educate others by their example.

If you’re freaked out about the Climate Apocalypse on the one hand, but usurping your employer’s electricity for your private use on the other, then perhaps you can be made to understood that the demand for energy isn’t going to go down just because you think the supply is icky—and that until we can meet the collective demand with an an entirely renewable and sustainable supply we had therefore better just hold our nose and fire up some fossil fuels.

I mean, if you can’t afford to charge your own devices at home, and you’re a die-hard green, then you should just stop using your devices. After all, you can’t let your hunger for electricity drive you to criminal or unethical behavior: then you’d be no better than the dirty, dirty fossil fuel industry. You’re not doing the planet any favors by getting electricity from the office instead of your own home, you’re just covering your own dirty tracks.

Alternatively—and this is the route I imagine many green extremists would go—you could just make up some kind of bullshit justification that allows you to steal electricity from your employer, or your neighbor, or your fellow taxpayers, and still feel like the hero of your own movie.

Which is, alas, why I said I almost hope a lot of people cut a lot of ethical corners this winter. I don’t actually hope so because that would just be setting myself up for disappointment. I don’t think being reduced to stealing electricity is going to make even a single green extremist just one jot smarter.

Allow me to clarify the grounds of my pessimism with…

A Parable!

In my Los Angeles salad days, way back in the 1980s, I sometimes went grocery shopping with a good friend and his toddler son. The kid rode in the shopping cart most of them time and was usually a pretty good sport about it. Sometimes, though, he’d be in a mood. On one such occassion, my friend opened up a packet of crackers and let the kid snack on them. We were able to finish our shopping in relative peace as the kid munched away on them, but just as we were about to get into the checkout line, my friend took the box of crackers from his son and set it up on a random shelf, wedging it between bottles of vegetable oil or cans of dog food. (My memory ain’t what it used to be.)

“Aren’t you buying those?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said, “the kid ate half the damn box.”

“Right,” I said, “because who’s gonna pay full price for a half-eaten box of crackers?”

“Exactly,” my friend said with a laugh.

I got a little more serious.

“You kind of have to buy them now,” I said, “don’t you?”

My friend rolled his eyes.

“Look at these prices,” he said, “you think they pay these prices in Pacific Palisades or Beverly Hills? Fuck no, man. If they’re gonna overcharge us like that, it’s only fair.”

That’s how tangled cause and effect can get for some people.

People steal from their local grocery store—and let’s face it, what my friend was doing wasn’t “on the level of” theft, it was the real McCoy—and then complain about the high prices.

“If people didn’t take things without paying for them,” I said, “the store could lower their prices.”

My friend cocked his head, stared at me throughtfully through squinted eyes, and finally said:

“Well, if you feel strongly about it, you pay for ’em.”

What Lies Ahead

On the one hand, the personal anecdote that I disguised as a parable is just a funny and beloved old story from the part of my life lived among the socialists and anarchists of the artistic community. (Whom I still love.)

On the other hand, it says something about our ability as a species to flip immutable laws around to suit ourselves. Our remarkable ability to justify, to rationalize, to brush realities out of the way like so many cobwebs.

As one John Le Carré character puts it: “First we idiots do what we want to do, then we look round for justifications for having done it.”


Anyone expecting or even just hoping for the forthcoming winter of discontent to serve as some kind of teachable moment is almost certainly in for a big disappointment. The very people who brought these various crises upon us aren’t going to suddenly wake up, wipe the scales from their eyes, and forswear their climate extremism for more incremental solutions. They’re going to do whatever they do to make sure they’ve got their own needs met even as they bang the drum for ever more draconian energy policies.

Employees pilfering a little workplace electricity, and employers reminding employees that what they’re doing is sorta kinda uncool, y’know, and maybe even just a tiny little bit like stealing—that’s not what I’m talking about. That was just a jumping off point. It’s a stand-in for all the similar behaviors we’re going to see, like the people who’ve been pushing for policies to ban fireplaces from private homes who are going to be burning a lot of wood this winter to keep warm. Rationed energy, higher prices, a scarcity of goods—these things do indeed concentrate the mind, but not on reconsidering one’s prior beliefs.

No, they concentrate the mind on looking around for justifications.

They’re going to be real, and they’re going to be spectacular.