Monday, April 22, 2013

What If We Didn't Have Electricity?

For the first post in my What If....? Series I am going to focus on one of the luxuries we all take for granted, and that we, as a society, have had access to the longest, electricity. How would my life be different if we didn't have electricity? I'm not talking about simply being off-grid, and using alternative sources of electricity production such as renewable energy or generators. I'm talking about a situation in which we had access to no electricity, in any form.

As I sit here, I'm looking around and thinking about the ways in which electricity impact our lives. I can see a power pole and electric lines when I look at the window, and that has become a common site. I'm typing this post on a computer, using an internet connection, both of which require electricity. My cell phone lays on one side of my desk, with my deskphone on the other, neither of which we'd have without electricity.

I have gone days without electricity, when camping, and never found it to be burdensome. In fact, I tend to view brief periods without electricity as a blessing. As much as I might like to romanticize the idea, however, I realize that life with no electricity would be a real challenge.

For me, the hardest things to do without might very well be an internet connection. I have become so reliant on having access to the internet, for entertainment, information, and even my job, that it would take a lot of adjusting to get use to not having it. Practically speaking, however, I think that the hardest things to really live without would be air conditioning and refrigeration.

Many people live without air conditioning today, so it can clearly be done. Of course most people would argue that, while that may be true, it isn't so easy to do in the climate in which they live. That is certainly a common argument here, due to our hot, humid summers. People lived without air conditioning in this area, however, for many years, and a few still do, so I know it is possible. It wouldn't be easy, though, I admit. Living without air conditioning would require some lifestyle changes. It would be necessary to spend more time outdoors during particularly hot periods. The biggest change, however, would really need to be with our housing. There was a period during which passively cooled homes where the norm. Without electricity, homes had to be built with ventilation in mind. Today, however, artificial climate control allows homes to be located in full sun, with the orientation and window placing based aesthetics and convenience, rather than with cooling in mind. When we build a house we plan to do so with an eye towards passive cooling. If we had no electricity today, however, it would be an immediate necessity to do so.

Lack of refrigeration, on the other hand, might not be quite so easy to deal with. Our entire food system seems to be built based on the availability of refrigeration. Even when camping, I always take a cooler filled with ice to keep things like meat, dairy, and drinks cold. We store a lot of food by freezing, which is obviously not something we could continue to do without electricity. For someone living in a city, the solution might be as simple as going to the grocery store each day. However, for those living in rural areas, that isn't very practical. Becoming more self-sufficient when it comes to food would help, as it would provide a daily source of things such as milk, eggs, and vegetables. Without electricity we would have to use more traditional methods of food storage, such as curing meats and storing vegetables in a root cellar, or using canning instead of freezing. People have survived using those methods, so I know it could be done. It wouldn't be an easy transition, though.

Fortunately things like heating and cooking can be accomplished without electricity by using other fuels, such as propane or wood. I suppose that propane refrigeration might also be used, to solve the food storage problem, but that seems a bit like cheating for some reason.

Of course there are appliances other than the stove and refrigerator that are often electrically powered, including things like mixers and washing machines. Those tasks can certainly be done without electricity, but not as easily. This is true for many other tools as well, such as saws, drills, and even the tractor and cars, which require a battery.

I haven't mentioned lighting yet, mostly because I don't see that as a big issue. We prefer to use natural light whenever possible, especially during the summer. For those times that natural light isn't sufficient, candles or oil lamps could be used.

While there may be some downsides to living in a time in which we are so reliant on electricity it is clear that having access to electricity makes life much easier. I believe that, if forced to, we could live without electricity. I wouldn't want to, however, at least not entirely. Learning to use less electricity, however, is an idea I support and is a goal I'm trying to work towards.

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