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Moving beyond the megawatt

May 12, 2010

As the summer kicks off with the onset of the full-on load-shedding season, the Punjab government is trying to show that it is on the ball by introducing a set of sweeping measures to conserve electricity. The efforts are hoping to cover the ever-widening shortfall of required megawatts to keep things running in Lahore. As a result, all commercial activity is supposed to cease after 8:00 p.m. every evening, and all government institutions are going to switch to a five-day work week. Bringing a highly unregulated, sporadic city such as Lahore under a strict regulation schedule is no doubt a daunting challenge; whether this is the most effective and efficient solution to the problem is itself a complex question with no simple answer.

These days you'd expect any major city to have a vibrant nightlife, and the fact is that Lahore's a bit of a nocturnal city. Even as late (early?) as 4:00 a.m. you can see eating areas and paratha roll joints teeming with people. Late dinners and subsequent dilly-dallying around are common, and all sorts of commercial activity continues as night merges into day. Shutting down all commercial areas at dusk, when this intricate socio-commercial interaction commences, would disrupt complex patterns formed over many years, and would be a kind of downer.

Adaptation is the key in any given survival scenario. Circumstances are always changing, and just like weather patterns and seasonal cycles, societies themselves have learned to cope with changing conditions, accommodating for famines and droughts – saving up in the good times and getting by in the bad times. While in the developed world, fluctuations in the usage and production of energy rarely ever affect the end user, in places like Pakistan, where every megawatt counts, things can be a little tricky going from one month to the next. Unfortunately, instead of adapting to this power deficit in a behavioral way, we've ended up adapting to it in a psychological way.

As the temperature rises and everyone's air conditioners start brimming, the demand for electricity skyrockets, resulting in more hours of load-shedding throughout the day. Most days of the summer months end up looking like checkerboards of hours with electricity alternating between hours without electricity. Sometimes, when things get really tight, one hour of electricity is followed by two hours of sweaty anticipation. Sometimes, to reward patient consumers of electricity, the authorities bestow not one but two glorious hours of electricity.

Over the last two years, people have gotten somewhat used to this major inconvenience in their lives. Gone are the days when blackouts used to be a one-off occurrence during a thunderstorm, or when people had to dread that one hour without electricity in the whole day. Now urban life in Lahore is all about swinging from one megawatt-hour to the next.

You could be working on a project, or deeply engrossed in a television sit-com, or just having fun on YouTube – and snap! Before you know it, the power is gone. It takes a fraction of a second for your brain to register your sudden change in fortune, which although expected is always forgotten in the moment. It breaks your heart a little, but then you say 'oh well!' and carry on.

Now we could get all worked up at the world for being such a resource depleted place, or curse the government for not having its act together, or even belt out a belligerent bellow at the gods for putting us in such a predicament of damnation. But negativity is such an overused emotion – so yesterday, so passé – that we should instead look at things through a positive frame of mind. Think about it, the possibilities are endless. Getting used to these power cuts doesn't have to be an act of desperation; in fact, this whole getting used to the power-cuts business has us looking at a whole new, untapped lifestyle industry.

Forget fancy jargon like sustainable development or renewable energy – helping people get used to living without electricity is quite clearly the way of the future.

Obsessed with the eight or 12 'electric' hours in our days, we seem to have forgotten the value of the 12 to 14 purely 'acoustic,' unplugged hours. Haven't we realised we're sitting on a gold-mine right here?  While the rest of the world is going ape over getting connected and staying wired, accessing all the information all the time, we here in Pakistan have a rare opportunity to disentangle ourselves from the mesh of technology that seems to have captivated the rest of the world. Indeed, we could quite realistically be the first to wake up from this maddening trance of electronics to find that appliances and technology, gadgets and machines have begun to slowly but surely take control of our lives – so much so that we feel helpless when they aren't operable.

This is an unhealthy dependence on technology, and it requires too much energy to sustain it. As such, this is our chance to become well versed in the art of living without electricity through gradual adaptation, rather than sudden jolts. So hour by hour, we should slowly learn to live life unplugged, until we reach a point where we can do everything we once needed electricity for without any megawatts at all.

asifakhtar80x80
Lahore-based Asif Akhtar is interested in critical social discourse as well as the expressive facets of reactive art and is one of the schizophrenic narrators of a graphic novel. He blogs at http://e-scape-artist.blogspot.com/ and tweets at http://twitter.com/e_scape_artist.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily represent the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.