26 August 2008

When we are shown our Place in the World...

There is a widespread idea, especially among the followers of Christian religions, that the human race has been chosen to rule the world. After all, in Genesis - the first book of the Old Testament - 'God' is saying so to Adam. Well, we all have heard and read better stories meanwhile...

Nevertheless, there is this underlaying thought that we are the most superior of all the species on Earth, because we are (so far) the only one that developed certain physical, mental and intellectual skills and abilities that put us above the other animals. But ever so often Nature, the true ruler of this planet, shows us humans our actual weakness and puts us into our place.

I just had such an experience, which is still causing me some inconvenience and lots of problems. It is also the reason for my two weeks of absence from the internet and in particular from this weblog. Naturally, to access the internet one needs electricity.
During the past couple of weeks it actually came to me how much we - the human race in general and the inhabitants of the developed and industrialised world in particular - depend meanwhile totally on electricity for almost every element of our lives.

But let me explain: As I had mentioned here earlier, I had been away for some time. Not unusual during the summer, although for me it was, as I never have holidays and do not take time off like most people do.
My absence from home was for a good and creative reason, but while I was away, the extremely bad weather that has messed up the Irish 'summer' (as it did already last year) chose to turn on me as well. The rain, which was often torrential for hours and from time to time interspersed with hail and thunderstorms, caused the flooding of many houses here. Entire villages suffered severe floods, most of which came without any warning and built up within a very short span of time.

In my case it was - fortunately - not so serious, although the trouble I had (and still have to a certain extent) is bad enough. The massive rain found a way through the roof of my very small and very old house. Once it had done that, streams of water flowed freely around as much as it was architecturally possible, and when I came home from my assignment, I found the cottage not only water-logged and with a damaged roof, but the walls were wet, water covered the floor and in some places mold was beginning to spread. The smell was very strange, too, and it was in more than one way quite a shock for me.

I am not a rich man, and monetary wealth has never played a major role in my life. But since I am rather a 'home bird' who prefers sitting in front of the fire place with a book and a cup of tea to going out to a pub for a drink, the sudden unavailability of my modest comforts did effect me in various ways.
First of all there was a lot of physical work, naturally. The rooms had to be emptied, furniture had to be cleaned and dried, and the water that had entered the house had to be put out again.
Then I started the drying process for the building, by having a blazing fire for many hours each day in the open fire place (which is the only way of heating the house). Slowly but steadily there was some success visible. And by now - after two weeks of struggle - I am almost reaching the state of normality again.

Certain items were damaged beyond repair and further use, but those are only material losses. What turned out to be the much greater loss for me was the time I was forced to spend on the salvage and repair operation. Much of my work was left undone, I had to cancel appointments and meetings and pass on certain projects to a colleague.
The whole experience has shown me in a very personal way how small we humans are in the vast structure of the Universe; how helpless we are against the elements of Nature.

In a very particular way I realised how much I depend on the availability of electricity. Without it - and I had of course to switch off everything for days until the house was dry again, in order to avoid more trouble - there was very little left one could do. Yes, I could heat the cottage, as I still use wood and peat for that. And I could cook, as for that purpose I use bottled gas. So all was not completely lost and I was not entirely dependent on others.
But all my work these days is done with the help of computers. They, of course, need electricity and - in order to communicate and write the weblog - also the internet connection. And here the experience has taught me a very interesting and special lesson. By basing everything on systems that will not work without the 'invisible stuff that comes out of a socket in the wall' I am in fact no longer truly independent. I am - as so many millions of others - a slave of modernity and for all my professional progress totally dependent on electricity, a substance that is not only invisible to the eye, but also far removed from every individual in this country.

A friend of mine in Germany is in a quite different situation. He took advantage of a government grant some years ago and installed his own small wind turbine, which now produces more than enough electricity for his and his family's needs.
In fact, for most of the year the rotor in his garden produces a surplus of electricity, which he sells to the national grid of Germany's commercial electricity companies, and they pay him handsomely for this environmentally friendly contribution to energy security.
This is the way forward, making everyone not only aware of energy, but involving thousands of individual citizens in the production of the national energy. It is a win-win situation with no-one losing out or being ripped off.

Here in Ireland things are not that progressive. In fact, when it comes to energy policy, we are still in the Dark Ages. Due to an incompetent and widely uncaring government, private energy projects - as they are meanwhile quite common in Germany, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and a number of other European countries - are non-existent. Instead we - the people of Ireland - are still completely dependent on the old ESB (Electricity Supply Board), a once entirely state-controlled body which has meanwhile undergone some changes and part-privatisation. But this has not improved the situation. Quite the opposite. Since there are private interests involved now, the greed of the company has risen to new heights, while the traditional incompetence and lack of management skills are still the most significant hallmark of the ESB.

The cost for electricity in Ireland has just gone up by 17.5% in one step, with a further rise already announced for January. Ireland has not only one of the highest energy prices in the world, it has also one of the most rigid and inflexible systems. Thus millions of citizens are in the constant stranglehold of the energy companies, whose existence alone is already a license to print money. (Not to mention that our incompetent government has given away Ireland's only reserves of natural gas practically for free to the international giant Shell...)

What we need is a complete rethinking and restructuring of the energy supply system. Individual citizens should not only be allowed, but encouraged to contribute to the national grid (as they do very successfully on the continent). And the monopoly of greedy city slickers who do not give a damn for their customers needs to be broken.

I have no problem with the state controlling the supply of electricity. This is better than leaving the matter to the squabbeling of the market place. But it also includes a general responsibility a state and government has for the population as a whole.
If necessary, then the price for electricity - at least for a certain amount that is needed by people to survive and conduct basic domestic operations - will have to be subsidised by the government as a matter of social care. As long as we are not able to create our own electricity - which would be the preferred option for me - we should not be held over a barrel by the energy companies and ripped off left, right and centre as they please.

Fortunately my little house was not destroyed and will remain inhabitable. But the unpleasant experience of the past two weeks has made me think even more deeply and be even more determined to live an alternative and sustainable lifestyle.

The Emerald Islander

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