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Greene: Unplugged

12/03/12 7:55AM By Stephanie Greene
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(Host) The Climate Change Conference in Qatar - coming as it does in the destructive wake of Hurricane Sandy - has gotten writer and commentator Stephanie Greene thinking about our dependence on electricity.

(Greene) The late folk singer Dave Van Ronk once described to an audience how his uncle dragged the family piano out to the curb and took an axe to it. The reason? He thought they didn't need it anymore: they had just bought a radio. The story elicited groans from the audience.

Of course fifty years of retrospection makes it easy for us to parse the different roles the instrument and the radio play. The joys of making music, however imperfect, are different from those of listening to professional recordings on the radio.

But we're going through similar debates now about books vs ebooks. Hard copy back-up vs. the Cloud. Even trucking vs trains.

Those of us clinging to the old ways often claim a sort of aesthetic and nostalgic high ground that annoys the embracers of new technology. And the techie position sounds a trifle too optimistic to us.

Buddhism teaches detachment, reminding us to imagine each new gadget we lust after as already broken. But no one wants to picture an incapacitated Cloud.

Attending the eVermont conference at Champlain college last year, I timidly raised my hand during a seminar on the Cloud and asked about power outages. The presenters were too polite to scoff at this Luddite, and explained that of course there would be generators ready to stave off disaster.

On our hilltop we lose power fairly often. We always have. If it's not an ice storm, it's a driver without snow tires skidding into a utility pole, a hurricane, or some combination of the above.

We have friends who are off the grid, with both solar panels and a windmill. But even they are not completely immune to the ravages of extreme weather. My friend describes the dismay she felt during one storm as she watched her windmill blade cartwheeling merrily through her meadow.

When Superstorm Sandy ripped out power in metro NY, it forced people out of subways and cars. It shut off local gas pumps, people's cell phones and computers, their lights, even their heat. Their elevators stopped working and most people had no water. It's easy to forget how many systems depend on electricity.

Those without power or water gathered at locations that did have those luxuries to power up or wash. People got water from fire hydrants.

The storm put Manhattanites, most albeit fleetingly, back into the 19 th century. Articles appeared in newspapers (those quaint holdovers) about urban children and teenagers rediscovering the charms of board games and face to face get-togethers.

Those in the hardest hit areas got a taste of what life in a war torn country might be like.

So Sandy might serve as a reminder to diversify our skill sets. Fifty- somethings may feel idiotic asking their children how to navigate Twitter. But it might not be a bad idea to teach those kids how to split kindling and use a hurricane lamp safely.

Perhaps we shouldn't take an axe to the piano just yet.

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