“On the Grid”: When Electricity (and Other Things) Came to the Countryside

To many FPR readers, the arrival of electricity in a place like Pomatambo no doubt brings to mind the core issues of community, self-reliance, and development that we often discuss.  Connecting such villages to the electricity grid is something that, as far as I am aware from my conversations, none of the rural poor oppose.  They are in much the same situation as rural America was during the electrification projects of the 1930s.  Over the years, electricity was among the most frequently mentioned aspects of development that Pomatambans said they wanted, and something that they knew the village would have to have to be even remotely appealing to the younger generation who were leaving in droves.  But rural electrification also places the rural poor “on the grid” in a broader sense.  Particularly with daily access to television, the influence of global consumer culture will become all the more pervasive.

Electrification is a microcosm for some big questions, including what one might have to fear from being “on the grid,” and how much the problem is the grid itself versus what happens both materially and spiritually to flow through it.  Among people who worry about such things—and, with a few exceptions, the rural poor themselves do not worry about them before having experienced them—the fears fall into two broad categories.  One has to do with losing control, of being subject to vast external forces for which no one really has close moral accountability.  The other has to do with having alien values seep into and rot the fabric of community life.

Perhaps the most deliberate effort to take these fears seriously and head off the problems before they begin has been made by the Amish communities of North America.  To outsiders, they are known superficially by their austere old-fashioned attire and by their habit of riding around in horse-drawn buggies.  But most Amish communities have had a quite sophisticated approach to evaluating the myriad new technologies that have arisen in the world over the last two centuries.  They ask first and foremost whether each technology—with all the patterns of use surrounding it—is compatible with their religious commitments and social arrangements.  Many Amish communities have electricity generators, therefore, but do not connect to the public grid because it represents a form of dependence.  Television is out, because it distracts from the vibrant internal life of the Amish village and exposes the young to unsalutary influences.

Few traditional communities have the steady religious authority and time-tested social cohesion to make these assessments and stand by them like the Amish.  Pomatambo is already loose enough, because of migration and education, that it certainly does not.  But among thoughtful people like Quintín, there is a consciousness of many of the same issues.  And there are hard tradeoffs involved, especially if we try to think about exactly what is to be sought, what avoided, and how to do so.

Loss of control can only be avoided entirely if one meets all needs locally.  Suppose that one wants electricity—as do all Pomatambans to whom I have spoken, for reasons as basic as wanting light to stay up by in the evenings without inhaling candle smoke.  To have it under their full control, they would have to generate it locally using solar panels, windmills, and the like.  In the future, that may well be possible; and I have met a few independently minded people in developed countries who use solar panels to cover the electricity usage for at least their basic household appliances.  Such self-reliance would also be intuitively appealing to distributists like G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, who were rightly suspicious of depending on large conglomerates whether public or private.

As I have had to point out before to the more technology-conscious Pomatamban youth, who get wild ideas about small solar panels to power computers, however, such equipment is still rather expensive for the context.  If places like Pomatambo want to stay off the grid, it would mean waiting quite a long time for amenities like electricity.  Moreover, there are economies of scale to many other desired amenities and activities.  The rural poor are acutely conscious of losing control over their own lives, to be sure.  They are aware that there is a wide spectrum of possibilities between being a consumer fully “on the grid” and living in secluded destitution.  But I very much sense that most of them would not pick the most isolated end of that spectrum, if it comes down to it.

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