To plug in or not to plug in, that is the question


Not long ago I heard about a company that offers hybrid solar power systems. These include photovoltaic panels which charge batteries when the sun is shining and propane-fueled generators that kick in if the batteries get low -- during prolonged cloudy weather, for example.
No one needs to convince me that this sounds like a great idea. I have lived with a similar system for 15 years, and my friends are probably weary of my sermons on the virtues of solar power. Become your own electric company and learn surprising lessons about conservation and relative worth.
But when I learned that the intended market for the new product is the Third World, my enthusiasm waned. The spokesperson said that they hoped to light up the night in backward regions, introduce phone service and pump water for livestock. This would bring the blessings of modernity to so-called "underdeveloped" places, and lift the poor peasants out of poverty.
Oh, it's noble enough to extend a hand to someone less fortunate, to give them a leg up to a better life. But are we certain that they are less fortunate? In about 50 years our culture zipped from rural electrification to Wal-Mart World. Shouldn't we tell prospective electric clients the whole story?
How's this for a sales pitch?
Hey, you poor, disadvantaged, Stone Age fools! Listen up! What you need is electricity. It will make your life happier. You won't have to wander around in a pristine jungle all the time. Instead you will spend half of your free time watching pictures on a box and the other half shopping for things you see on the box.
If that doesn't sound like fun, not to worry! You won't have all that much free time anyway, since you will find yourselves working nearly three times as many hours a day to pay what we call "bills."
What is "bills?" Well, think of bills as the animating spirit of everything -- like the heathen gods you imagine you see in rocks and leopards. Bills is a much more powerful god, though.
And soon you will build a temple to bills where you park on a big asphalt parking lot and go inside to find new things to plug in and make more bills. Having more things to plug in is what we call "a higher standard of living."
What's that? You're afraid you won't have time to teach your children superstitious fables about your ancestors and your gods? Hey, don't fret! In a short time you'll discover that the family isn't all that important.
We have a yellow machine called a "school bus" that will keep the kids out of your hair while you work, and a place called a "mall" to store them the rest of the time. You'll only have to buy them expensive sneakers and pay for college.
Sure, they'll move away and won't be there when you are old and feeble, but bills can take care of that, too. If your kids pay their bills, the government will pay your bills and you can live in a nice, sanitary building full of other feeble, old people and watch game shows and soap operas on the box. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it?
Of course, our culture isn't all bad, but neither is theirs. If we could show them one modern technological society in which families are not splintering, where stress-related disease isn't rampant, where people work fewer hours instead of more, where natural landscapes aren't being cut and paved, and where air and water quality are better than they were 200 years ago, we might have something to offer.
But as Aldo Leopold observed, you can't do just one thing. You can't change a cause without changing an effect. Before we try to help others step up to our standard of living, perhaps we should be a little more certain it really is a step up.

C.L. Bothwell, III, contemplates the human condition from his home in the other Carolina. His "Duck Soup" is served twice every Tuesday on WNCW-FM.

Hey you poor, disadvantaged, Stone Age fools! What you need is electricity. You won't have to wander around in a pristine jungle all the time. Instead you will spend half of your free time watching pictures on a box and the other half shopping for things you see on the box.

© Copyright by POINT, 1995
Last modified 11/12/95