The Amish are laughing at us

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An edited version of this column appeared in the December 19, 2007, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly, in the wake of a severe ice storm that knocked out power for many Tulsa residents for a week or more. The published version is no longer available online. I expanded on an idea in this column in a 2011 blog entry: Bates's Law of Creeping Techno-Slavery. Also relevant: A 2009 item on how the Amish decide which technologies are acceptable. Posted online September 9, 2017.

The Amish are laughing at us
By Michael D. Bates

As winter power emergencies go, this one could have been a lot worse. The temperature broke freezing within a day of the ice storm and stayed above freezing (or not far below it) until Saturday night, by which time most PSO customers had had their electrical service restored.

The roads were drivable. Trucks continued to bring food and other supplies to Tulsa, including generators and chainsaws. Except for the rain on Tuesday (which helped to melt the ice from the trees and avoid further damage), the weather was no impediment to PSO and the many out-of-state power company employees who came to town to assist in the cleanup.

Tulsa's Mohawk water plant lost power for a time, but the A. B. Jewell plant stayed online, with plenty of capacity to meet the city's needs.

Even with power out at home, it was possible to spend most of one's time where there was power. Our two big malls stayed open. Plenty of restaurants were open for business. QuikTrip had all of their stores up and running on generator power, so people could buy gasoline to make their way to the restaurants. Downtown never lost electricity, thanks to underground power lines.

Imagine if after the ice storm temperatures had dropped and remained below freezing. Or if the ground had been cold enough that the ice had stayed on the roads, preventing travel and preventing help from reaching us. Or if the outage had covered the entire region.

As I drove through Amish country west of Chouteau last week on a cold and grey Thursday, I caught sight of a line of clothes flapping in the cold wind - bib overalls and simple dresses. The clothesline was behind an unremarkable white two-story house, identifiable as Amish only by the lack of any wires leading to it.

I laughed out loud at the thought of anyone having to dry laundry in the cold winter wind, instead of using a toasty gas dryer.

Less than a mile later, I realized that the joke was on me. I had a gas dryer but for three days had had no electricity to make it work. Like a lot of midtowners, I have a couple of clothesline poles in the backyard, but the wires have long since been taken down.

The Amish, unlike us "English," know how to eat and stay warm, how to wash and dry clothes, how to preserve food, how to live comfortably in all seasons without any connection to the power grid.

It wasn't that long ago that our ancestors lived like the Amish do today. A hundred years ago at statehood, few Oklahomans had electricity, telephones, or automobiles. They depended on local sources of food. They depended on horses and mules and their own two feet to get around. The railroad and the telegraph connected them to the outside world.

Building design was adapted to work with, not against, the local climate. In the north, you'd want a roof steep enough to shed heavy snows. Shutters - real shutters big enough to cover the window - would be important to keep out bitter winter winds, but you'd also want window placement that would allow breezes to cool the house in summer.

In the south, a big porch gave you a shady, breezy place to cool off in the summer.
Trees were an important part of regulating a home's temperature - with leaves, the tree would provide cooling shade in the summer; without leaves, sunlight could pass through to warm the home in winter.

Building interiors were designed to allow the home to be heated with fireplaces, floor furnaces, gas space heaters, or radiators.

If you look at the footprint some of our older office buildings, you'll notice that, rather than a solid rectangle, many were T or U shaped so that every office had a window to let in light and air. Transoms over each door could be opened to allow airflow across the building.
Since the advent of central heat and air, many of those buildings have been squared off to maximize enclosed space. Modern office buildings don't even have windows that can be opened, and those buildings quickly become uninhabitable when the power goes out.

When electricity was first widely available, we used it to supplement natural lighting on cloudy days and in place of oil lamps and candles after dark. Later we used it to run ceiling fans and window unit air conditioners. In place of small ice boxes that used a real block of ice to keep food fresh, we installed electric refrigerators. Electric washers and dryers replaced washboards, wringers, and clotheslines.

New electrical appliances made possible other technological developments. Can you imagine wall-to-wall carpeting in a world without electric vacuum cleaners?

I've noticed that new technologies pass through three stages. At first, a new technology is a luxury, then it becomes a convenience, and eventually it becomes a necessity.

For example, in the early days of automobiles, few people had them, and most folks went about their business as if automobiles didn't exist. When automobiles first became affordable to the general public, most families got by with a single car, still able to accomplish many everyday tasks without it.

Eventually, it became possible for businesses and homebuilders to assume that everyone always had a car at their disposal. With the help of zoning laws that segregated homes from shops from industries from offices, our cities reorganized themselves to make a normal life nearly impossible without two or more cars in the family.

When a technology is in the convenience phase, there's still a backup, and the sudden loss of the technology is a mere inconvenience.

Once the technology becomes a necessity, its sudden absence is a disaster. The older technology that used to fill the same need has largely disappeared. The outdated devices can't be found, and the skills and knowledge to make them work begin to die off with the last generation that had to rely on them. Tried to buy a clothes wringer lately?

We have evolved a way of life which is unsustainable without the ready availability of ever-increasing amounts of electricity. We have no emergency backup.

Last week only three things in my house worked without electricity: The gas log in the fireplace, the gas water heater, and the plumbing system. And even those systems are ultimately dependent on electricity: the treatment plants, pump stations, and lift stations for the water and sewer systems, and the control system for natural gas delivery.

The phone system worked, but as in many homes, all of our phones are cordless and dependent on AC power to work.

My gas furnace was useless without an electric blower to push the warm air around the house.

Some people believe that a lengthy power outage like the one Oklahoma just endured is a preview of things to come. They say we've passed the peak of global oil production and domestic natural gas production, and the economic growth of China and India mean more competition for those declining resources.

In his recent book, The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler predicts that we are in for a period of painful readjustment, made more difficult by the way we designed our homes and our cities during this period of cheap, plentiful energy. Kunstler debunks as wishful thinking the idea that biofuels or hydrogen fuel cells or increased energy efficiency will allow us to continue to live as we do today indefinitely.

I'd like to believe that isn't true. I'm not a survivalist, and I don't want to become one. When massive disruptions were predicted for the turn of the millennium because of the Year 2000 software bug, the only precaution I took was to get back from a business trip before midnight GMT on January 1, 2000. It's far more comfortable to assume that life will go on forever as it does today.

Each of us ought to start thinking about how we would feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves and our families in a world without plentiful electricity. When we build houses and buildings, we ought to consider whether the design would be livable when the power is out. As our city revisits its comprehensive plan, we ought to consider how well our development policies would work in a world where energy is far more expensive.

If last week's power outage was a wakeup call, maybe we shouldn't just reach out from under the electric blanket and hit the snooze button.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on December 19, 2007 11:31 PM.

Creative campaigning: Phone voters in early primary states was the previous entry in this blog.

Fred Thompson on the War on Terror is the next entry in this blog.

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