Rural Routes/Margot Ford McMillen

The Next Big Thing

Last Christmas, someone gave my husband a “New Generation” flashlight from China. Instead of being powered by batteries, the light works when you shake it to activate—something—and gives you several minutes of light per shake. This is a great improvement on the flashlight he got in 2006, a Russian model with a handle to squeeze and produce the electricity through friction. It took a lot of squeezing, but you could carry it in one hand from the house to the barn, a bottle of milk for a lamb in your free hand, without falling on anything.

The squeezer light was an improvement over the flashlight of 2004, which had a crank. It took two hands—one to hold the flashlight and one to crank. But, in defense of that one, a European model, the cranker also had an emergency flashing function in case you were in a car wreck, and had it in the car, rather than sitting on the kitchen counter. As if.

The inventors of each of these flashlights have built on their inventions, creating green industries in their own nations. This is the route American industry should be taking. Instead, we’re stuck with the same old energy and industry lobbyists pushing subsidies for the same old ideas.

At our Christmas gathering, we passed the 2007 shaker model around the room, shaking and pushing the button, and my brother-in-law, who is clever about such things, said, “I don’t see why they can’t make a big shaker-thing and just run the whole town off it.”

We all cracked up, thinking about the fool designated to shake the big thing, but, not so far from my brother-in-law’s idea, here comes a pole lamp powered by gravity. This gravity light has a propellor that you pull to the top of the pole when you turn it on, and it spins as it travels through an oily medium to the bottom of the pole, creating electricity as it spins. In about four hours, you pull the propellor to the top again.

So here’s US industry, debating how many new nuclear plants to build, and how many billion-dollar subsidies to award, while other inventors leapfrog to technology that requires not solar, not wind, not geothermal, but gravity.

My husband’s 2007 flashlight—the shaker—was purchased at the Amish store. The Amish are also installing solar panels. These people decide what to adopt on the basis of how the new gadgets affirm their community and their sense of God. In adopting new things, Amish elders decide as a community how far the boundaries can shift.

Thus, they decided not to use electricity from corporations.

Electricity from nature—yes.

But back to the gravity-powered lamp. You might be thinking: If gravity can power a light, why not a radio? A microwave oven? A curling iron? Why not?

And what about the hydrogen-powered car?

And the wind-powered yard lights? And wave-powered boats? These innovations are building new industries.

For every new technology, there’s a better possibility over the horizon. My buddy Henry replaced all his light bulbs with compact fluorescents, and hauled a sack of perfectly good incandescent bulbs to the dump. His light bill went down, but what a waste!

Bottom line: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but when something is worn out, replace it with the best thing available. Today, replace a burned-out incandescent with a compact fluorescent.

Next year, you might be buying cheap LEDs that last practically forever.

In 2001, I replaced my decrepit Ford SUV with a hybrid Honda Insight. I did not make the trade lightly because, environmentally speaking, you’re better off to keep the old car and drive less. The late, great Donella Meadows estimated that one third of the energy burned in the car’s lifetime is spent in building it. That means that, even if you trade for a car that gets four times the gas mileage or your old model, you begin with a big deficit.

But there is a point when a car is worn out and the SUV had reached that point. My new Honda has gotten 58.7 miles per gallon over its lifetime of 80,000 miles in 7 years. It has been a safe ride, too. When I went off the road during a snow storm, the weight of the batteries kept it stable. It slid sedately onto the shoulder, coming to a rest over a ditch, front end on one side of the ditch and rear on the other.

I was damn lucky, and I wonder what the SUV would have done. With its higher clearance, it might have stayed on the road. Or, following the same path, it might have flipped when it hit the shoulder, or the ditch.

The Honda was the first non-American car I’ve ever owned. Since then, we’ve bought three others, although we’ve stuck with our Ford pickup truck, putting about 1,000 miles on it per year. Next car, I’d love to have another American model, but I’m waiting for improvements, real improvements, in gas mileage.

It’s the next big thing, and that innovation will make some nation’s future.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2008

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