The benefits of power cuts

Recently there have been a few snaps of very cold weather in Budapest. During one of them, a couple of weeks ago, the twelfth district suffered a power cut. Out went the lights in the august offices of Vertis Environmental Finance. Out they went in the apartment of its Managing Director. And a whole hillside of affluent middle-class Hungarians was bathed in darkness.

So we shut the office and trudged home through the snow.

It was absolutely fantastic!

None of us were on life support systems, for a start. But then, walking up Kiss János Altábornagy utca you saw the living rooms flicker into life, as people stumbled around for candles and lit them up. The lights were gentle, soft, and lovely. GE, for all the white coated nerds at its famous GE Lighting Tungsram factory in Hungary, has never got close to the still, gentle, flickering, beauty of candlelight. A good example of technology taking us backwards. And in the absence of street lighting, cars moved forward cautiously and safely.

When I got home the house was a twinkling grotto of Scandinavian night lights (Ikea, 900 Forints for about a thousand of them) which we moved around to where we needed light. You realise that having a central light casting light over everything in the room is about as unnecessary as taking a shower if you are thirsty. The central heating wouldn’t work because the gas needs an electric spark to fire it up. So we put on a couple of jumpers. No-one felt cold. The cat hopped down from the radiator and snuggled away under our duvet without a complaint.

And we sat down to a candle-light supper en famille. It was all very jolly and rather disappointing when the lights went back on again.

The discovery from this powercut was that saving energy can actually be rather fun. The accepted wisdom in political circles that saving energy is something post-war and like black-and-white TV, is nonsense. A change of attitude from the effete town dweller to the robust rural traditionalist could lead to substantial cuts in emissions. English politician Edwina Currie got into hot water about fifteen years ago for telling old people to wear warm clothes if they can’t afford the heating bills. The attacks on her comments must have been one of the early manifestations of the blight of political correctness. Of course, she was absolutely right.

But for some reason there is a political taboo about taking care with light and heat – this needs to be blasted away. Politicians are still shit scared of monster energy companies and utilities whose economic interest is to sell as much power as possible, despite their billion Euro windfall gains in the EU ETS. We do have to call energy companies to account. We do need to tell moaning crinklies to wear woollies and turn the heat down. We do need to have more romantic candle-lit dinners. Remember, the more layers you have on, the more you have to take off. It can make life even more fun.

In short, it is wrong of politicians to assume that saving energy is the same as hardship. As we found in the power cut, hardship is all in the mind: the masses willingly accept piles of hardship anyway, such as eating at Macdonalds and watching Big Brother. This implies that demand-side improvements in energy use may be better achieved through political leadership, slick communication and persuasive media, rather than hiking electricity prices through EU ETS.

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