Saturday, November 23, 2013

Human Power

                The recent addition of solar panels to The Mountain Institute’s Earth Sheltered building and our new energy efficiency programming have sparked discussions amongst staff about the most effective forms of energy in terms of practicality, effect on the environment, and overall efficiency. Our energy sources – such as coal, natural gas, wind, and solar – power our lights, heat our homes, and power the machinery that builds our buildings. Yet in any discussion about energy there is one source of energy production that is often overlooked: the human body. 
                Through the ages, human and animal power has constructed the pyramids, built entire cities, and ploughed large swaths of land for agricultural use.  For a majority of human history, human power and handmade objects were highly valued. The industrial revolution in many ways valued the mass-produced product and the industrial product over handmade products and the hard work that went into them. However, it is only in the last two centuries that industrial power production has overtaken human power as a greater source of energy production.

                 Many questions arise in my mind when talking about energy. How can we provide for all of humanity's power needs? What new forms of energy production can power our cities? Yet amongst all of my possible ideas and thoughts about energy production lies a simple idea: that we use less electrical energy and do more to provide directly for our own basic needs.
                 The principle of Bread Labor, fostered and popularized by Ghandi, holds that a person must work in some way each day to directly provide for his or her basic needs of food and shelter. It is perhaps Ghandi's practice of Bread Labor that may aid in our return to a more energy efficient, human-powered way of living. Like any other form of life, humanity needs to capture food, seek shelter, and produce energy in order to survive. Yet, in our busy modern lives, we are so often disconnected and uninvolved in the very processes that create our homes and grow our food. If we were more involved in these processes and used more human energy to produce them, we might reduce the energy waste associated with their production.
                 The Mountain Institute was formed on the very premise that this principle of Bread Labor is a necessary part of life and work for the staff and volunteers that live here. From the beginning, raw human power was big part of its creation. The main yurts were built entirely by volunteers, without the use of power tools, and the materials were sourced from local timber.
                The designer of these yurts, Bill Coperthwaite, lives in a yurt that he built in Maine where he survives without electricity and grows most of his own food, thus abiding by the principle that human power is the most important and interesting form of work. Bill admired Scott Nearing, another Thoreau-like modern philosopher and homesteader, who at ninety-nine was still splitting his own firewood. Scott Nearing, quoted Thoreau in one of his books, saying that firewood gathered by human power, "warms us twice, and the first warmth is the most wholesome and memorable, compared with which the other is mere coke...the value is received before the wood is teamed home." These men believed the mere act of cutting your own firewood, growing your own food, and building your own dwelling, made from local resources, is an activity that saves an unnecessary the use of energy. Human power, for them, was not only a fact of life but the very essence of their philosophy about energy and how one ought to view work and life. For them, the handmade product or building was more important that the cheap, mass-produced one, because it was a representation of human power rather than an energy-intensive industrial process. Bill and Scott both proved in their lifetimes that living off the land by using mostly human power and the principle of bread labor is still possible, even in the modern world.

                To many of us, the lives of modern homesteaders, like Bill Coperthwaite and Scott Nearing, seem to be an extreme example. Perhaps not all of us are in a position to make a sudden switch to homesteading, or stop using our power tools. However, we can still make better choices about the energy we use, especially our own human energy. –Mike Escol


To learn more about the Nearings, see this link.

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