life without electricity

The first trailer (and Wagenplatz) that I lived in was pretty standard as far as German Wagenplätze go. That is to say there was no grid electricity, we shat in compost toilets, peed outside, and used headlamps and 12-volt appliances (that is, those with solar panels did—the guest trailer I lived in didn’t have ’em).

In my second trailer I found myself living in a luxury Wagenplatz deluxe. That is to say, with running water in the community’s bathroom trailer (though we still all carry water to our kitchens) and the grid electricity I had missed as a writer who is dependent on a laptop incapable of running on 12-volts. I still pee outside, but now I can listen to music, write using the laptop, and bask in the brightness of my chandelier’s 40-watt bulbs whenever the muse strikes me. Even in the dead of winter when there might not be enough sunlight to power even a couple hours of light.

Though my current home is set up so that I don’t actually need to turn on the chandelier to light it (I heart wall-hanging candle holders), I secretly long for the day that the coal and nuclear power plants shut down and we are left in the bright light of our sun and our bonfires and candles. As long as it continues to make sense in our culture to write on a laptop, I will probably be interested in having some source of electricity. But going without it for a few months can be a beautifully eye-opening experience, can help you realize just how little you really need.

Can you imagine living completely without electricity? Can you imagine running only lights and appliances that run on 12-volts? Can you imagine giving up your refrigerator and freezer? What would you miss most in a world without electricity?

What I have never missed—and still don’t have though the current electricity situation would allow it—is a refrigerator. We store our vegetables in a drawer (even in the presence of a fridge)—a dresser found in the trash I can only assume—and our grains in the bags they come in and in the glass containers I pick up from the flea market and the trash (I have a dried-foods-in-glass-containers fetish actually). Dairy I store on the floor near the door of my trailer in the winter (the coldest spot in the room), and in the summer I buy very small quantities that I know I will be able to eat before they go bad.

But refrigeration habits are culturally learned. Take the egg. In America people refrigerate eggs with a vengeance. I used to think that an egg left out on the counter was an egg I shouldn’t risk eating. But in Germany eggs aren’t even refrigerated at the grocery store, and though the only eggs I’ve ever eaten in Germany have come straight to my plate from the coop, the millions of other people who eat them seem to be doing just fine.

If I ate meat I might feel slightly differently on the refrigeration issue, but meat isn’t currently part of my diet. And should meat finds its way back into my belly—as I have always assumed it one day will—it will be in a manner that keeps a refrigerator out of my life (smoked, dried, bought often and eaten immediately) because it’s an appliance my conscience can no longer stomach.

Once in a while I have a little “miss you!” pang for some freezer space, but then I think of the coal power plant belching the black death into the sky, shrug, and go get a carrot out of the drawer. Besides, there are a handful of fridges and freezers in the trailers around me, and if push comes to shove, I could borrow some space in one of them without adding another appliance to our electric bill.

If the shit really hits the fan and, say, we run out of oil (or it’s just too expensive for normal people to buy) and the world (and electric grid) as we know it crashes around us, then I’ll happily toss my laptop out the window and get on with my life.

I know that at first I’ll miss a few things: the candles (as I curse myself for never having learned to make my own when I still had access to the internet), the washing machine (though in a collapse situation I doubt I’ll find it necessary to own and maintain as much clothing as I do now), the table saw (which would quickly be replaced by arm muscles the likes of which my body has never seen), and my stereo (the CDs will become mobiles and I’ll finally build that pedal powered record player I have plans for). Certain things will be missed, but I don’t think I’d mourn them for long.

But maybe, just maybe, we’ll all get our shit together before it comes to a collapse, and start redesigning Our Way of Life so that it is no longer at such odds with the habitat that keeps us alive. Maybe we’ll start making smart decisions about power use—cutting out the things that make our life easier but not better so that we can keep whatever we decide is the most important—and maybe pigs will sprout wings and cart us off to hell by the scruffs of our necks. You never do know, do you?

Cutting back on our personal electricity use can make a difference in its small way, but remember: it is industry that uses the most water, the most power, pretty much the most everything. So while we’re kicking our refrigerators to the curbs, let’s save a kick or seven for the industries whose practices need the biggest makeover of all.

How do you keep your power usage (and bills) down? How do you think we could convince corporations to do the same?

Photo (cc) flickr user CHINNY!

12 Comments on “life without electricity

  1. I think I would miss not freezing to death or having the choice of destroying the umwelt by burning everything I could lay my hands on. Since I live in the West, I probably wouldn’t have to see 75% of my society die through the lack of heat and watch the destruction of the land through deforestation as we burned everything we could reach and then stabilized (one hopes) at a much lower population and only in areas of the world which would be more hospitable to humans.(As an example, Native Americans never lived in the Adirondacks- it was too cold for them. They visited only with hunting parties.)

  2. I was wondering this morning as this post went up whether readers would interpret the question of what they would miss most in a world without electricity on a larger scale than I addressed it here. Because if considered on a larger scale there certainly would be a lot more to get used to (then I think my washing machine and stereo would be the least of my worries), and a whole lot of fucking chaos and unrest and death and awfulness to get through should things collapse completely.

    All the more reason to really make some radical changes in the way we live now. There are so many fantastic things about the world now, and there would be a lot lost and a lot of suffering if, instead of taking the initiative to live in a less destructive way immediately, we push everything to the limit until everything collapses in on itself.

  3. I do often wish we could ditch the freezer. My goal for next season is to get away from freezing vegetables and either can or ferment them all. The issue is the meat- it’s actually not allowed to sell meat fresh here, you have to sell it frozen. Which is insane, but it also means we buy it in huge quantities and store it, which means we could never eat it fresh in time.

    Regardless I think I would miss my sewing machine the most, hands down…

  4. Washing machine. That has always been my big thing and there are plans to save up for a manually operated one as soona as I have spare money for things like saving rather than paying off debt.

    I only have a small freezer on top of my fridge but I would love to have a huge one and make proper use of it. But if I had to, I suppose I would do without. I do know how to make candles but without convenient little packs of paraffin wax to buy and at some stage presumably running out of remnants of old candles to use, my only option there is to start keeping bees. One day.

    Music is another thing I’d miss so I really must get around to getting a ukulele soon, which is apparently very easy to learn. The only sheet music I have is whatever I’ve sung in choir over the years but I do also have notebooks with lyrics to songs written down in them – used to be much more fun to do that with tapes than it is with CDs though.

    I have to focus on those kind of ‘small’ things though, rather than the bigger picture of what a chaos life would be in a collapse situation. Easier to concentrate on the post-collapse, if you know what I mean.

  5. Fishie: Can you not get fresh meat in the whole state?? Daaaamn. Despite the fact that I don’t eat meat, I am very used to butcher shops and fresh meat being very readily available. Whoa.

    As for the sewing machine, I think that sewing machines and washing machines are two bits of technology that really do make our lives awesomer. Handy though it is, I am of the opinion that my cell phone, for example, doesn’t make my life any better (or worse) at the end of the day.

    Moonwave: (Haha, now every time I go to type your name I have the urge to type “moonshine.”) Would probably be a good call to learn how to build a washing machine that could be run by, say, pedaling a bike. That to me still sounds much better than washing everything by hand. Then again, I am so used to having a washing machine that perhaps that’s just habit talking. But I never much liked washing things by hand.

    And good call on getting an instrument to deal with the loss of music in a situation like this. I didn’t even mention that. I imagine that in a post-collapse situation a lot more people would be making their own music then they do now.

    I generally focus on the small survival things when I contemplate a collapse because, really, who the hell knows what form it would take and what exactly would end up happening. I quite enjoy reading post-apocalyptic literature because I find all the various scenarios so fascinating, as well as contemplating how I might manage to survive if I found myself in one of them. If it comes to a collapse, the issue of survival (and the small things that could allow each of us to make it) will probably become the focal point of us lives, so why not think “small”? At the very least it is an interesting exercise for the mind, and who knows what the future might bring.

  6. I’m not sure what the actual reg is, but you can only get not-frozen meat at the grocery store. All of the local butchers (all two of them) only sell frozen. I’ve asked the farmers a number of times about getting meat fresh, but they aren’t allowed. Which is dumb.

    Things I want to learn to do:
    Make candles for sure.
    Make strings for instruments!
    And I would second the bike pedaled washing machine. I’ve seen designs before.

  7. Food regulations are all so very strange. Well-intentioned, perhaps, but strange. Sigh.

    The candle-making and the pedal washing machine are def both on my to-learn list too.

  8. last summer we had in vienna a “bicycle music festival”, some us-bands were on tour by bike in europe (they crossed the ocean by ship), and some local bands joined. and the whole electricity for a big PA (enough for a crowd of maybe 100 or 200 people) came from 4 bikes! so 4 people from the crowd were always kicking the pedals to keep the music going. even when it started raining and everything was moving indoors, they still were not using any power from the wall…

    i was really amazed that 4 people are enough to drive such a big PA! i think they had some big capacitors in between to store some power for a few minutes…

  9. Anton: That is frickin’ amazing. That’s launching all sorts of neat little fantasy scenarios in my head. Music nights once a week where someone plays their favorite albums and runs the bike to run the stereo so everyone can get together and enjoy the prerecorded music they thought would be immediately lost after a electricity grid crash situation. Sometimes I really wish I was more handy with electricity stuff. But I did manage to run the electricity in my wagon (with a ton of help and instruction I might add), and it wasn’t all that hard in the end.

  10. I second that, that bicycle-PA idea is absolutely brilliant.

    Focussing on small-scale collapse, I don’t have a freezer, so I wouldn’t miss that (well, not any more than I already do… I seem to have a permanent urge to freeze soup). (incidentally: no fresh meat in a butcher’s?? wtf??!) Not having a fridge would definitely be a bit of an adjustment, though I suppose I’d get used to it. I guess I’d then quite like regular access to a cow. (For milk!!).

    I’m with you on missing a sewing machine and music and I’d definitely need a very good wind-up charger for my camera… and I hate to say it but I’d probably really miss my laptop: I type so very, very much faster than I can write by hand, but having said that, I would love to see a return to proper letter-writing, I adored it.

    I went six months without a washing machine last year as we had to wait until we inherited one, and I tell you what, I know I could do it again, but you would have to prise the damn machine it out of my dead, clenched fists.

  11. Pingback: Life Without Electricity - Love and Trash, A DIY blog for people who do things differently.

  12. Thank you for the positive talk about living without electricity. I currently live off the grid in Alaska. Winter is coming, which means no lights and no computer charger. I had a huge issue with fruit flies this week, because I kept the fruit on the counter and not in the fridge. Not having a shower ready available was also a struggle for me. But I think its just the change and need to remember that change is always hard and things will become routine soon.

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