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Offbeat – 06 December 2013

My guess is the people who are prepared to give up electricity for water didn’t go to boy scouts, spent those hours in geography doodling pretty flowers or motorbikes in their exercise books and haven’t watched the survival shows on Discovery.

A recent informal survey on a website got me thinking. Would it be worse to live without electricity or water, it asked? Typically, water was the winner. But isn’t that what you would expect? The articles that deal with the economic impacts of power cuts, particularly in Southern Africa, have an increasingly gloomy feel to them. The articles that deal with life in general, in the absence of electricity, have an indignant side to them. They point to Zimbabwe and extol the virtues of that hardy people, who have come to manage without plugs and appliances as a matter of course. There is even a humorous tone, to which I say four-letter words below my breath. I don’t care if Zimbabweans have lived for years without electricity. The fact that they do so, has no bearing on me. Here’s an analogy. For years, people lived without vaccines. Should we, in sympathy, live without vaccines now? My guess is the people who are prepared to give up electricity for water didn’t go to boy scouts, spent those hours in geography doodling pretty flowers or motorbikes in their exercise books and haven’t watched the survival shows on Discovery. If you are out of water, go to the nearest river bed and start digging. If you don’t know where to find water, walk around with a forged twig in your hand humming mysteriously. Sooner or later someone will tell you to stop playing the fool and tell you where to dig. If you are really desperate, go down to a shop and buy a bottle. As long as there is money to be made, the shops won’t run out of water. If you really don’t have water, no spade and no shop, get an old rag and try, suppress your gag reflex and make water. It’s revolting, but I have seen two guys on Discovery do it. Now what do you do if you are out of electricity?  Do you A) grab some copper wire and start winding it round a stick, B) adroitly and deftly construct a solar panel or C) hold a light bulb in your hand while frantically doing a speeded up moonwalk in the hopes that something or other will happen? Did you know that if you don’t have water, you can use electricity to call a plumber or send an SMS to a local newspaper complaining about the tardiness, laziness and / or nepotism of your regional representative. Both of those acts are fairly good indicators that you will have water before too long.  If you don’t have electricity, you have to go and complain in person. That means schlepping yourself all the way over there and getting past security guards, secretaries and second, third and fourth-tier representatives with cheerful smiles and empty words in order to lay the complaint. There are two signs that you are living at the back-end of civilisation: water interruptions and incessant power cuts.  Water is something that can be stored. It is also something that can be trucked in. That is provided that you aren’t in a place like Darfur which genuinely qualifies in my mind as a place where a war crimes tribunal should go to work.  Electricity is something that is not easily stored. Batteries only last so long. So now you know where my vote would have gone if I had bothered to vote. Here’s the serious bit. Life without electricity means that everyone has to find new professions. That’s all fine and well for carpenters and plumbers, though not so good for builders. It is not so fine with everyone else, particularly those who want to segue with the rest of the world.  Civilisation has a number of non-negotiable facets: plastic is one of them, electricity is another, and so is water.  It is not so much the fact that any of these things may become ‘problem areas’ that bothers me. It is the fatalism that materialises in the mindsets of those who face a future that involves the reduction of any of these things. There is an idea that ‘it doesn’t help to complain’. However if something ceases to be an issue, inactivity and inertia will follow. So complain with a will and keep at it. ‘You got the power’, as the song says. It’s just the electricity that is uncertain.

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