Lucy and Todd

Everything Unelectric

In Recent Articles on January 25, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Once there was a world without power. No power stations, power surges, or power suits. A world in which, okay, people ruined their eyesight sewing stuff in the dark, and had the occasional riding accident. Indoor plumbing too still had a way to go. But at least genes and gonads weren’t permanently damaged by manmade radiation leaks, and nobody was ever in a multi-vehicle pile-up. They were spared so much, our ancestors! Mowing the lawn, wrestling with the Teasmade, ferrying children to piano lessons… They had it all – they had freedom, individuality, culture. And then electricity was tapped, Henry Ford discovered the source of the vile, and Steve Jobs handed Eve her Apple.

With technology, industrialisation and their bedmate, alienation, we’re not just losing sight of what art is, but what the human hand can do. It’s capable of a lot more than just gliding a mouse around or struggling with Velcro. As James Joyce said about the hand that wrote Ulysses, ‘It did lots of other things too.’ Hands are great! We wouldn’t last a minute without them. Nobody would catch you when you’re born, or affix you to the nipple, or change your nappy. No matter how much we like computers, consumerism, and sitting motionless in front of the TV fingering the remote, the human hand is our biggest love. Not to see anything made by hand, on a human scale, is a kind of death – like the prospect of never being touched again.

I’m tired of electricity, gas, petrol, and nuclear power. I’m just sick of any energy other than the kind plants and animals naturally expend going about their daily business. I now search the world for anything that doesn’t require electricity. I’ve come to view electricity as a kind of ethereal rapist, that can’t stop interfering with everyone: gas and electricity insinuate themselves into the house, and the money drains out of the bank. It’s a form of abuse. Electrification has taken the place of education as the one thing governments must provide (at the risk of every type of nuclear disaster!). And we seem convinced we must use it all up as fast as possible, before developing countries get their mitts on it.

I’ve recently started observing in myself a disgust with all things buzzing, humming and zapping – a definite increase in my allegiance to simple stuff that doesn’t move without help, stuff that just sits there, stuff that doesn’t require the aid of power stations to validate its existence. These things include: toilets, bicycles, butter, jam, keys, buttons, belts, Bandaids, blankets, books, pens, pencils, paper, shoes, sheds, sleds, skis, skates, bells, wind-up clocks, musical instruments, typewriters, wooden tools and hand-powered gardening implements, cutlery, clothing, Kleenex, needles and cotton, corkscrews, cigarettes, doors, door knobs, candles, see-saws, tennis rackets, tulips in a glass of water, Japanese padded silk panels, cupboards, tables and chairs. Just thinking about anything unelectric, ungaseous and non-nuclear fills me with a warm, private, low-tech, halogen-free glow.

The shutters in my bedroom, that keep out the light and the cold, are manually operated. A human being has to effect any change in their position. No other force, no artificial, doomed or dwindling power source, is involved. And they work! The duvet works too, without electricity, as do the cupboards, shelves, floorboards and rug. So too the pictures I love on the wall, and my husband, who runs on his own steam, especially when steamed about something. It’s a simple pleasure, but I like the fact that you can open and close our bedroom door without having to enlist the services of the National Grid.

But there are lamps in the room too – though not as many as a friend of mine would advise (she always says I have too few lamps, while I think she has too many: she makes no allowance for my aversion to electricity!). There’s also a laptop, and an electric heater. These things jar.

I have fantasies of electricitylessness. To live in a steading somewhere, equipped with a reliable well, vegetable patch, fireplace, maybe a wood-fired Aga. Cold white wine would somehow emanate from its own spring just outside the door. Inside, it would be all porridge and patchwork quilts, padded silk hangings in progress, a chicken or two, and musical instruments, which we’d play to warm ourselves up. Yes, I would miss the ready supply of the finest music, now provided instantly by CDs. And washing clothes by hand would be a chore. And it’s easier to fill a hot water bottle if you’ve got an electric kettle. Many household machines, I admit, are useful – but they take up so much space!

And the noise! Noise is a new fetish with us. Why rake leaves quietly, allowing neighbours to sleep late, when you can frazzle everybody’s nerves with a leaf-blower? Why sweep the streets manually with brooms when you can send out an ineffectual (but expensive) little mechanical pavement sweeper with a cutesy name and vexing electronic voice that repeats the command ‘Attention. Take care, pavement cleaning in progress’, all the way down the street? (Though from afar it sounds like ‘Buzz off buster, buzz off buster…’)

You can’t even have a baby anymore without using vast amounts of electricity, though our ancestors somehow managed without, and most animals still do. We revel, we wallow, in our dependence on electricity. But what about power cuts? After 2012’s Hallowe’en hurricane, people in New York couldn’t use the elevators, had no water supply, the food in the fridges rotted, and dialysis had to be rationed. We’re completely at the mercy of energy-providers. We have given up any remnant of self-sufficiency to become mere capitalist units that purchase electricity. We exist only to establish more and more outlets for electricity, and to make more requirements of it.

It would be wonderfully calm and quiet in our steading, and so private.

Things were still beautiful a few hundred years ago, before the hatred of anything natural took us over. Okay, so there was no whooping cough vaccine. But there was a lot more clarity, not just in the air and the water, but in people’s minds. Now we go to war over oil! Is it really worth killing for? Maybe we need to use all the remaining electricity to manufacture bikes, and then turn it off.

You know what works without electricity?  Nighttime. We survive hours and hours of electricitylessness at night (unless you’re dependent on an electric blanket or iron lung). You can sleep right through these low-tech periods of darkness, or go for a walk. You might fall over a bit, but with any luck you’ll see some stars. And other people. They’re not electric yet either – but they’ll probably soon be replaced with robots out on ethnic cleansing missions, so enjoy real people while you can.

This world is too expensive, too ugly, too heartless, too handless. Where’s art, where’s humanity, where’s comfort? Where are the simple, amiable, graspable products of our labour? All I’m saying is, when the primordial shit hits the electric fan and all current sources of energy are kaput, I will have books, pencils, paper, needles and thread, socks, slippers, long johns, a loo, a toothbrush, a typewriter, some candles and a wind-up torch. I hope. What’ll you have?


A version of this essay appeared in Aeon Magazine, Jan. 24, 2013

  1. If Tesla hadn’t been hounded into penury, obscurity and coronary thrombosis, I am sure that we would have a much healthier respect for electricity, and we would be for example transmitting broadband via the earth and not via cable. But he was, and we don’t, and soon we won’t be going to war over oil, but water.

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