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05.12.10

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Low-Tech Wreck

A minor domestic blip conjures visions of a less privileged future

By Marc Polonsky


I was curled up on my couch one evening last month reading a book about peak oil and climate change and the inevitable lower-energy-consumption future that awaits us all. I got up to boil some water for tea and found that there was barely the thinnest imaginable thread of water running from my kitchen faucet. It would have taken 30 minutes or more to fill the tea kettle.

I checked the bathroom sink and tub. Same thing.

I called my neighbors to find out if the problem was widespread. Camp Meeker has had water issues in the past. But this time, I quickly learned, it was just my house.

I couldn't shower that night. I like to go to bed feeling clean. Stress and disorientation woke me after five hours of fitful sleep. A few hours later, I started calling plumbers. One came over at 11, found a leak near my water meter and fixed it. By 2 o'clock, my water supply and pressures were back to normal.

I felt relieved—and a little spoiled. I had just read that having electric service is the equivalent of having 50 slaves furiously pedaling away on stationary bicycles to generate my energy all day and night. Water from the tap doesn't just flow out by force of gravity; it's pumped from somewhere, with electrical energy.

In the days before home electricity and modern plumbing—a fairly short time ago in human history—people had to fetch water from wells and streams. Going outside of one's home to obtain water was a fact of life, not a horrendous inconvenience. In fact, to have only to step outside one's door and fill water buckets from something as astonishing as a spigot would have been viewed as a miraculous, incomprehensible luxury. Yet I had found it intolerable. Why? It was not so unpleasant to get a little wet in the rain and then come in and dry off. I wasn't even worried that I might catch a cold. But I was afraid that I couldn't afford the time. I couldn't live with this disruption of my routine. Or so I felt.

I was also aware, based on what I'd been reading, that things may get a lot more inconvenient for all of us, and even the days of water spigots may be (forgive the pun) tapped out in our lifetimes.

What if limitless electricity and endless conveniences go extinct? I have few practical skills. I've scarcely even weeded a garden, much less dug a well. In the back of my mind, I've long imagined that the down slope of peak energy consumption may look something like Mao's Cultural Revolution, and that soft intellectual types like me will require "re-education" and be forced into some sort of land-based indentured servitude. I imagine wielding a shovel or a pick all day, and shivering in the cold at night—my just desserts for a life of privilege.

So there it is: guilt. Another hidden ghost that makes going without running water for less than a day—and the thought of a power-down world—intolerable.

In his The Transition Handbook, author Rob Hopkins points out that humanity ascended the oil slope with enormous creativity and inventiveness. Cheap energy has made incredible things possible, from computers and air conditioning to stereo speakers and airplanes to bombs and leaf blowers. But these are products not just of fossil fuels, but also of human brilliance and innovation. So, Hopkins suggests, humanity now has an opportunity to apply commensurate creativity and brilliance on the down slope. Hopkins offers visions of locally based, interconnected economies, new forms of community life, interdependence, transportation, communication, conservation. Much of this has already been put into practice, in model transition towns around the world.

But transitioning to a world of severely curtailed conveniences is not merely a practical matter. So I'm wondering what types of spiritual, social and psychological technologies the human genius will need to cultivate as we slide down the energy slope. For example, on the day that my water was not running, if I had possessed the skill—the "consciousness technology," if you will—to experience every moment as sacred and vibrant, I doubt I'd have been so unsettled.

Here's hoping that human technologies of the heart can calm and supersede our fears, our insularity, and even our desperation when it comes to that.

Marc Polonsky is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Camp Meeker. His website is www.marcwordsmith.com.

Open Mic is a weekly feature in the Bohemian. We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 700 words considered for publication, write openmic@bohemian.com.


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