Commentary  Fight the power

Thoughts from the rez energy-saving contest

For five evenings during the bitter tail end of January, the courtyard of Douglas Hall played host to a strange scene. As the hour grew late, and the temperature dropped to the chilly depths of a Montreal winter’s night, seven students trooped out of the warm building and into tents staked out on the snow-covered lawn.

Through the first night of steady rain that left them sleeping in tent-sized puddles, to the last morning when they awoke with icicles in the tent and frost-encrusted boots, the campers, both experienced and neophytes, endured the elements by night and their classes by day.

The endeavour impressed some; others were decidedly unimpressed; others still, incredulous. Many were simply puzzled. What was the point of all this? Was the camping, which coincided with the first week of Fight the Power (an energy-saving competition among the first-year residences), a bid to save electricity that had been taken to a ludicrous extreme?
Two of the participants discuss their motives, their experiences, and what they learned from their nights out in the cold:
Jonathan Wald: For me, our plan started off as a joke, but turned into something that I thought would be fun to do.

Margaret Waterhouse: Well, some of us had an environmental agenda as well.

JW: I didn’t mean to say that it didn’t have an environmental statement. It picked up that meaning once we chose the power-saving week as the dates.

MW: For me it was always a statement of what humans can live without, which is why I gave up my laptop, my cell phone, and showering.

JW: I’m sure your classmates thanked you for that. I never wanted the camping experience to interfere with my studies or social life, and for the most part, they didn’t. That said, I think the experience did indicate that much of our reliance on technology is at least unnecessary.

MW: Really? I thought giving up technology was really hard. It became a full-time job. It seems our society now makes the assumption that everyone is using these technologies and structures itself around that assumption. It scares me to think that one day it might be considered irrational to live without a laptop and cell phone. I mean, our tent living was seen as irrational by some observers, and that wasn’t a huge departure from the norm.

JW: I agree that our society now takes technology for granted, but that in itself doesn’t worry me. For me, the time in the tents reinforced the fact that one can live without technology and that life can continue even if we lose our appliances. However, I don’t think that we should demonize technology, since it can be a tool used to resolve societal issues like climate change.

MW: Except sometimes there are unforeseen consequences of these tools. Look at cars. When they were first produced, they held the promise of making our lives so much better. When we built our lives and our cities around them, even expressly for them – suburbs – we had no idea of the havoc they would wreak on the environment. Even now that we do realize the consequences, we feel trapped between the environment and our “normal” lifestyles.

JW: I don’t think that one historical example implies that technology is always a doomed endeavour. To me, it shows that we need to analyze tools critically, for example by asking ourselves what we are using laptops for, and remaining flexible enough to act upon our conclusions. By that, I mean rethinking our approach to technology, rather than fearing it.

MW: We need to rethink it, and we need to actually change. The progress technology promises is irrelevant in a destroyed world.

Margaret Waterhouse is a U1 Environment student and Jonathan Wald is a U0 Arts student. This piece was written in collaboration with Rose Karabush, a U1 IDS student. Continue the dialogue: