Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Generation Electric

When Benjamin Franklin performed his kite experiments, he was testing a theory that lightning was electricity. He wasn’t trying to harness its power; he was trying to find a power to protect people’s homes from this deadly current.

Thomas Alva Edison began inventing the machines that would harness this power. If it weren’t for Edison, we’d still be trying to read by candlelight. We certainly wouldn’t be communicating through e-mails and Ipads.

As wonderful as our technology is, it still has its drawbacks, as we saw with the Japanese earthquake. It seems as though Japan is experiencing the seven modern plagues. First, the earthquake. Second, the tsunami. Then, the meltdown of its nuclear power plants. Followed by the shutdown of its all-electric mass transportation system. Thanks to the breakdown of the electrical system, people are running into food and water shortages, sewage breakdowns, and general power failures in their buildings and homes.

Are the Amish – the Pennsylvania Dutch – right? Is modern society too dependent upon electricity, provided a mass basis. They believe in electric power, but they refuse to go on the grid, to allow themselves to be connected to the general society.

I love my computer and cable television. I doubt I’ll ever convert over to being Amish. But I do keep a bicycle in my basement, flashlights, batteries, and other emergency supplies, just in case. One news report stated that stranded Tokyo commuters were trying to buy bicycles.

My last car had manual windows. My new car has electric. My brothers car had electric windows and until he could get an appointment to have them fixed, he had to ride around with the window, even in the rain, because that’s where it was stuck.

We’re good at crying “freedom.” But “independence” is a word we’re having trouble wrapping our heads around. Nobody wants to have to roll down their window anymore. If you don’t have electric windows, there’s something wrong with you. You’re stuck in the Edwardian Age. Nobody fixes their own cars, makes their own bread, although people do grow their own vegetables. So there is some hope for us.

We need to learn to be more resilient. The stranded Tokyo commuters have been sitting in their offices because the walk is too far and wintry at this time of year to make the trek home. I sure wouldn’t want to climb the hills between me and my office. I used to take the train and bus into work when I had a job in the city. At least the bus ran on its own fuel and while it could break down (all machines have the capability), another bus could be on its way.

But in Tokyo, millions and millions of people were stranded for days. That was the magnitude of the catastrophe. Another report said that Tokyo’s transportation system is one of the world’s most efficient. I don’t doubt it. But they also noted that when it breaks down in a major crisis, it really breaks down.

We need to remember to rely on our own resources and not put all our transportation and communications needs in one basket. Individual vehicles may not be the best option in a small island nation like Japan or in an island city like Manhattan. However, when the power goes out, it’s going to be a long walk unless you have other means. New York learned that during the 2003 blackout. New York’s ferry services were a great boon on that hot summer night.

When we build really tall buildings, and build suburbs so far away from the business centers, when we rely solely on mass transportation, with electric rather diesel trains, someone had better have a manual, roll-down window, a back-up plan, an alternative.

Because it could be a long time before you get that window rolled back up again.

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