Tag Archives: Electricity

Isn’t It Ironic…Don’t You Think?

Unlike the Alanis Morisette hit, “Ironic”, which was in fact not at all ironic, I have come across some ironies in my work that strike me as worth mentioning and perhaps exploring more in depth. The world we live in seems full of these strange paradoxes, but they come in to stark relief in development work where all of my “developed” cultural assumptions, privileges and background come into contact with those of the “developing” world.

Compost vs. Flush Toilet
The first one relates to the beautiful wicker throne of which I am so proud. I’m very happy to no longer be flushing and instead turning my own excrement into an agricultural resource. It takes hands-on management to empty buckets and manage the compost pile, but for me the trade off is well worth it in my mind. When I built this system, my co-worker had to laugh when he imagined what the Low German Mennonites (LGMs) would say if they ever saw my toilet. “We left that way of life back in Russia. What are you thinking?” People in Guarani villages like Caipepe have not had flushing toilets in their homes or villages. Their vision of development, similar to the LGMs, is one that brings many of the modern infrastructure to their homes. Why would I choose to go backward by pooping in a bucket and piling it up in the backyard? (For the answer you can read Humanure: Waste or Resource?)

Off vs. On the Grid
We have friends back home who have lived or aspire to live “off the grid”, meaning not connected to the electricity infrastructure. For some this might mean using renewable forms of energy instead, but continuing to consume electricity. For others this means getting rid of the need to use electricity as much as possible. For most it’s a combination of the two. We also aspire to this kind of lifestyle and have started a Sabbath practice with no electricity Sundays, which is easier there is only one breaker for the entire house.
In contrast our friends in Caipepe just got electricity in their village within the last year. Their experience of the world has been one without electricity in their home for most of their lives. What would they say to my friends, or me, about wanting to live without electricity or at least “off the grid”?

Sustainable vs. Industrial Agriculture
The irony I find most disturbing is that I, the white, North American, male development worker am the one advocating sustainable agriculture to indigenous people (LGMs are another story). The Guarani lived on the land as hunter-gatherers and perhaps farmers long before the chemical and seed companies that now dominate the market and dictate the type of agriculture practiced. They have a long history of knowledge of local flora and fauna. There are still lots of people that know about what plants are edible or useful for medicinal purposes, but this kind of knowledge and intimacy with the landscape has been marginalized in favor of the cash crop system of industrial agriculture. So, the farmers we talk to use chemicals to manage weeds, insects and fertility. They lack the knowledge of the ancestors about better ways to live on the land, which may be because they were hunter-gatherers who were forced to settle in to sedentary villages.
Other people, like the Quechua and Aymaras, who practiced agriculture before even the Incan Empire have probably retained more of their traditional knowledge than those who remained hunter-gatherers right up to the colonization by the Spanish beginning in the 16th century.

These are the ironies of development work, particularly with an emphasis on sustainability. It’s important to remember that the North American obsession with a “green” lifestyle is a privileged position. Some of it may be the right thing to do, but any attempt to simply import it to “developing” countries and/or indigenous peoples would simply be another form of colonization. Part of the reason those of us in the privileged “developed” world are able to choose lifestyles that contradict and challenge the status quo of industrial agriculture, consumerism and the growth economy is because our lives have been so saturated by these realities. Those in the “developing” world have experienced these realities from a completely different perspective and advertising continues to sell them a dream that is beyond their reach. So, once again we must find a way to bring these worlds together and find better solutions over a guampa of yerba maté.

When The Lights Go Out

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of podcasts lately on issues of collapse, peak oil, post-civilization, anti-civilization, etc. lately. I am convinced that the history of civilizations and empires tells us pretty clearly that collapse is inevitable. The collapse of a global civilization based on oil is unprecedented and the implications for our lifestyles can be pretty overwhelming. I have primitivist friends who try to learn skills like tanning, making clothes, moving quietly in a forest, foraging edible plants, etc. that will help them when all the oil is gone and we need to eat, clothe ourselves and find shelter. They also attempt to live in community and share possessions which is currently lacking and will certainly be a much needed skill. But they live in a house that uses electricity, plumbing, flushing toilets and drive cars (though one has been converted to run on waste vegetable oil). My aim is not to point fingers. I, too, fall short of some ideal lifestyle that may not be possible at the moment and may not exist at all.

I have tried to imagine what a post-collapse world will actually be like and what kind of things will help and what things won’t. Derrick Jensen talks about taking out dams, the electricity grid and other infrastructure that he believes is ultimately destructive to ourselves and the earth. What things

I wrote a while back about our first experience of a few days without running water in Bolivia. It was an eye-opening experience, something felt in the body more than the head. The other night I had a similar experience. It is winter down here in the Southern hemisphere. Though it might not get as cold as it does back home in Texas, there is no central heating here. So, the few weeks of really cold winter weather you are cold all the time. We try to use the oven as much as possible because it warms up our kitchen nicely. We also have two small space heaters that work pretty well. However, since all of our doors lead outside, our bathroom is not attached to our house and much of life here is lived outside, the cold is impossible to escape. We also live pretty far out in the country.

The other night as we were putting the kids to bed, the lights went out. Everything was pitch black, the heater was not on and I thought, “I’m not ready for collapse!” Even with all the electricity on I can see more stars here than I have ever seen and the Milky Way is often very clearly visible in the night sky. It was close to the new moon as well. So, when the lights went out it was about as dark as I have ever experienced. My heart jumped. I was not at all prepared. I felt caught completely off guard. We scrambled for flashlights and headlamps as I tried to figure out if it was just us or everybody.

Our town is working on completing a water tower to supply the town with water more consistently. This particular night they were working, I think, on the building to house the pump, when somehow they knocked out the power. It was only off for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, but it was one of those moments that shocks you awake. It made me realize how much I was still connected, attached and perhaps addicted to these things (as I write this on my laptop which is dependent on the same system) that depended on the grid. Questions flashed in my mind. How will we find our way around when the batteries run out? How will we stay warm tonight in this cold? What will we do tomorrow if it’s still not on?

In a profound way I felt a sense of loss and grief at the theoretical passing of this huge chunk of my identity which is bound up in this system that sustains me. I think that is a healthy response to the idea, the possibility or the inevitability of collapse. One of the villages I work with got electricity for the first time within the last year. I thought that was an interesting fact, but now I try to imagine my friends living with the darkness that I experienced the other night for their entire lives. Their identity is not wrapped up in this grid and all that it brings. If the grid collapsed tomorrow their experience would be vastly different from mine. It would have very little effect on them, but I would be scrambling to reconfigure my whole existence around this new reality.

P.S. As I was writing this post the lights went out again (this time at 4pm). This time it was the electric company shutting us off for not paying for the last two months… oops. The only gas station in the area has not had gasoline for the last week which has hampered my plans to go pay our account since our truck is out of fuel. How nice would it be to have one less bill to pay and thing to worry about. There is a lot of freedom in untangling ourselves from the system. What I have realized is that it is a long journey in which we slowly uncover how entangled we really are.

May the truth of Christ and the liberating presence of the Spirit continue to lead us into true freedom.