Learning to live with less?

FILE PHOTO: Sohail Bin Mohammad

At 5am, I have just started to feed my cats when the electricity goes out. I grope about for a candle, then continue my early morning activities against the soft glow of candlelight. Call me a hopeless romantic, but using candles reminds me of Jane Austen novels and Shakespeare, in the days before electric light brightened our rooms and dulled our senses.

The guards are asleep. The generator remains off. There is a distant hum of neighbourhood generators. But for me, no whirring of the fans, no stink of diesel. A gentle quiet pervades as I blow out the candle and watch the sky gradually lighten.

I take the cats up the stairs to the rooftop garden, which doubles as their playground. (Alas, they are not the only little ones in Dhaka for whom the only available playground is a rooftop.) In any case I usually take the stairs, partly because I consider it "free exercise." On the rooftop, a fresh cool breeze is blowing.

I don't mean to over-romanticise power outages. I love electricity. I suffer intensely in the heat and appreciate electric light. It's frustrating to lose productivity in the office when the power goes out. Then again, I also enjoy when my staff and I sit around a table fanning ourselves and talk. Together. Like people used to do.

Many years ago – this was long before smartphones – I was visiting a local family at their home. Their two-year-old boy was sitting lethargically, mouth slightly agape in that way of under-stimulated children, in front of the TV. When the power went out, he approached me and we started to play. He erupted into giggles. As soon as the power was back on, he was right back in front of the TV, bored but fascinated. 

In some neighbourhoods, when the power goes out, people emerge from their apartments (onto the roof or to a field or the street) and socialise. Face to face.

These experiences make me think that perhaps children in villages and urban slums have at least some advantages over their materially wealthier peers, in that they – or at least the boys – have more experiential wealth: the chance to play actively, rambunctiously, outdoors, and to have more social interactions.

Electricity is, of course, much on people's minds these days following the failure of the national grid and the ongoing loadshedding. 

I get that electricity is vital for hospitals, for workplace productivity, and for industry. But is it really necessary for our rickshaws? Do we need to have so many lights on at shopping malls, so much brightness at night that we never see the stars? If we wasted less electricity, the supply might be enough to meet our most urgent needs, including for our hospitals, without regular loadshedding.

Meanwhile, our insatiable demand for electricity means that we burn fossil fuels to generate electricity, we burn diesel for our generators, we buy oil from Russia, and we risk our future by planning nuclear power plants. Electricity generation is the second leading cause of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions after transport in the US. So we have the Western infatuation with the automobile and with electric appliances largely to thank for our floods and extreme heat. And yet we wish to follow the same path. 

Electricity and other modern conveniences make us more comfortable, sure, but that comfort can come at too high a cost. We rarely consider what we sacrifice to have those comforts, like the deaths from road crashes and the air pollution caused by our love of cars, or the way that electricity production harms the health of people and of the planet.

Perhaps if we didn't take electricity for granted, we would be a bit more focused on taking measures to make our cities cooler – more trees, less asphalt – and design our buildings with more light, air, and breezes, as well as rooftop gardens. Perhaps we could save our complaining for problems that have easier solutions, like the need for protected bicycle lanes and more urban parks and trees. Having fresher air, cooler cities, and less traffic congestion would, after all, make us more comfortable – while helping to heal, rather than further harming, our damaged environment.

Debra Efroymson is executive director of the Institute of Wellbeing and author of "Beyond Apologies, Defining and Achieving an Economics of Wellbeing".