Living Like Jane Austen

    My power went off Tuesday afternoon just as I was getting home from work and didn’t come back on for twenty-six hours. It was cold and dark outside and I sat bundled up in blankets thinking about what I would blog. My two cats struggled for the warmest place on my lap while I listened to the loud winds. We sat in candle light and I imagine this is what it must be like living in Jane Austen’s time. That old saying about only missing stuff when it’s gone is brilliant because I sorely missed electricity. No cooking, no heating, no television and most of all no computer. The only gadgets that worked were battery powered like my iPod Nano and flashlight or the wired phones. I had just finished listening to Northanger Abbey this weekend, so the early 19th century was still on my mind.

    Because I’ve also been thinking about lunar habitats I imagined what it would be like living underground on the Moon and having the power go out, or on a space station. It would be as black as a photographer’s darkroom. Out my window the low hanging clouds glowed dimly white from the sky glow of all the distant houses that had power, and I could see the black silhouettes of trees against them. On the Moon or Mars if you were underground it would be painfully dark. Of course emergency systems would cut in with light, or at least I hope. I’d assume they would have backup systems. Tuesday night I wished I had a backup system. But what if all systems failed? Imagine being in such a situation and wondering where the candles and matches are? When technology heads south we fall back on old ways.

    Then I started wondering about backup systems for my home. The next day the annoying sound of two generators filled the air. In 2003 during Hurricane Elvis as we Memphians like to call a storm of straight-line winds that knocked out the power to hundreds of thousands homes, I had thought about buying a generator too, but didn’t. My wife and I went without power for thirteen days in hot humid August. Years before that we had an ice storm that knocked out our current house’s electricity for a week or so, but then Susan’s parents lived here. From ten stories up, my Memphis neighborhood looks like a sea of trees with an occasional rock of a tall building jutting up. We’re very susceptible to high winds and ice. So is it worth buying a generator for outages that happen every three years? I’m starting to wonder.

    Between global warming, aging infrastructures, growing power demand, increased energy costs, frequent droughts and more bouts of strong weather, the idea of being energy self-sufficient crosses my mind more often. Certainly an old fashion wood stove would have helped during this blackout in the freezing cold. I have a gas fireplace, but it’s more for looks than heat. I wished I had solar panels for energy and heating, but the aforementioned trees put the kibosh on that solar tech. I’ve written about my desire for a solar energy tree collector before. However, unless I had an electrical storage system, that wouldn’t keep me from sitting in the dark at night.

    We’re very depended on civilization. I don’t know how many times during that twenty-six hours I walked around my house instinctively trying to flip on a light, or grab something to eat that required a stove. Jane Austen sure does overlook those details about how they lived without electricity. Of course her characters were all dependent on servant power. Servants arranged for candles, heated water, cooked with coal or wood. I was amused by Jane’s references to modern living as opposed to the primitive living in the gothic novels her characters read.

    This brings me back to generators. I wished 1950s science fiction was true and we all had a small nuclear power plant in the basement – or if cold fusion had panned out. Gas generators are noisy. So Tuesday night I sat in the dark and cold and imagined how to make gas generators less noisy. I suppose there are more expensive ones than those cheap jobs at Home Depot that might be quieter. I do know rich people can buy fall-over systems that go to work instantly when the power goes out, but alas, I’m not rich. I wondered if I could build a little soundproof concrete bunker with good ventilation for not much money. My goal would be to set aside one room in the house that had a small energy efficient air conditioner and heater and make it into my lifeboat room for when we had power problems.

    I don’t want to live like Jane Austen’s pre-industrial world. I want to have my own little spaceship home that is self-sufficient during bad times. I know I’ll never get to live on the Moon or Mars, or in a space habitat, but in the end we all live like Jane Austen’s world of family and friends looking for relationships and love, even the people who will live in outer space. That’s why we read Jane two hundred years down her timeline, and why future men and women living on other planets will be read her books too.

    The scary ideas of global warming, grid failures, economic downturns, worldwide pandemics, etc. make us fear losing the security of our homes. That’s why I like the idea of renewable energy and living off the grid, or having the grid as a backup. In one sense we all need to build self-sufficient lunar colonies in our own yards. Maybe I won’t be a space pioneer, but I might be able to be an energy self-sufficient pioneer.

    There’s a wonderful book, The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790-1840 by Jack Larkin, about rural life in America before industrialization. Someday someone will write The Reshaping of Everyday Life 2010-2050, and it will be about how we adapted to the current problems. Let’s hope it isn’t about how we had to de-evolve technologically and all live like Jane Austen again.



7 thoughts on “Living Like Jane Austen”

  1. I certainly wouldn’t want to return to living in those days either, especially on cold days. I would have no doubt used the opportunity you had to curl up with blankets and read by candlelight. That’s the romantic in me.

    Being cold with no power makes me think of Laura’s story in The Brief History of the Dead. Stuck out in Antarctica with dwindling power sources. I don’t mind the cold…when I’m in a warm house…but being out in the cold just to be out in the cold. Not for me!

  2. You wrote:

    “I wished 1950s science fiction was true and we all had a small nuclear power plant in the basement – or if cold fusion had panned out. ”

    Cold fusion did pan out, scientifically at least. It was replicated by several hundreds labs such as Los Alamos and Amoco. The Italian National Nuclear labs and several others are making progress. You will find a list 3,500 papers on cold fusion, plus 600 full text papers (including the ones from Los Alamos and Amoco) at our web site:

    Cold fusion reactors tend to explode, but I think good progress has recently been made in controlling the reaction. If the reaction can be controlled, there is no reason why we cannot have basement generators. The power density and temperatures are high enough. (Sometimes way too high, as I said; see the photos of exploded cells here:

    I wrote a book about cold fusion with comments somewhat similar to yours in chapter 21. See:

    Recommended by Arthur C. Clarke and many distinguished scientists!

    – Jed Rothwell

  3. As I said, chapter 12 is relevant to your thoughts. Quoting myself:

    “. . . The immediate goal of cold fusion should be to restore life back to some semblance of what it was before the population boom and the dark satanic mills of industrialization took hold. Of course some people prefer cities and dark satanic nightclubs, but I hope most will choose to live close to nature. Except they will have full access to television, the Internet, grocery stores, hospitals and all other modern conveniences and necessities. I am not suggesting anyone should go ‘back to nature’ and live in primitive conditions, unless they want to. People should live in harmony with nature, not disturbing it more than they need to, but never again should anyone have to live at nature’s mercy. No one should fear that drought might destroy his livelihood. . . .”

    By the way, your notion of building a self-sufficient fortress can never work. Even if you can generate electricity for a while, in a severe crisis your fuel will soon run out. As a practical matter, gasoline stations close when the power goes off. During a prolonged power outage, I once spent a harrowing afternoon securing gasoline for the generator in a neighbor’s house where a sick person needed the electricity. We are totally dependent upon other people, and that was true back in Austen’s day as well. Even the people in the “Little House on the Prairie” could not have survived without food brought in by railroad. There is no turning back, but I am sure that technology can supply enough food and energy for everyone. In another chapter of the book I show how the U.S. could grow enough food for the entire nation in an area the size of greater New York City.

    – Jed

  4. Jed, I know that’s true – that we can never be independent of the world around us. I just want to be a little more Boy Scout prepared. Also, the idea of being less dependent on centralized services is appealing too. I’ll check into those cold fusion references – I have not heard much about the subject since the initial announcements years ago.


  5. Jameswharris wrote:

    “Jed, I know that’s true – that we can never be independent of the world around us. I just want to be a little more Boy Scout prepared.”

    That is a good idea. I live in Atlanta, where there are periodic ice storms and torrential rainstorms. I have a gasoline electric generator which has saved me a lot of money over the years, by preserving stuff in the fridge, and operating a sump pump when the crawl space floods.

    However, real preparedness comes from community organizing. This has been demonstrated in Japan in recent years, where they have to be prepared for earthquakes and typhoons. They have shifted the focus from central authority to neighborhood self-help groups and the local police (who are very local, in “police box” every few blocks. This has had good results. Many elderly people have been saved, or kept comfortable and safe, with the new emphasis. Statistics show that immediately after major disasters, most rescues are made by neighbors. As I mentioned, I once spent a few hours rounding up gasoline during an ice-storm power outage for a sick woman who depended on electricity. (Very sick and immobile; she died some years later.) That kind of thing should be organized ahead of time. It would have been better if I had known beforehand who had containers of gasoline in their garages.

    “Also, the idea of being less dependent on centralized services is appealing too.”

    This is good, as I said.

    – Jed

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