The Clean Water Blog

One Thing We Can Learn from the Modern-Day Victorian Couple

A first-person essay on Vox, “I love the Victorian era. So I decided to live in it,” has been blowing up the internet this week. In many ways the couple, who are trying to live with mostly Late Victorian period clothes, furniture, appliances and hobbies, come across as completely oblivious to the very real problems of that era like racism, imperialism, poverty, a rigid class structure, and rampant diseases. There have many excellent criticisms of the essay that I agree with, most of which center around privilege and class. The couple in question are not living an average Late Victorian existence, they are living one modeled after the comfortable class, and not one representative of the misery of that period. But there is one message in the essay that I do think is worth repeating:

Much of modern technology has become a collection of magic black boxes: Push a button and light happens, push another button and heat happens, and so on…The resources that went into making those items are treated as nothing more than a price tag to grumble about when the bills come due. Very few people actually watch those resources decreasing as they use them. It's impossible to watch fuel disappearing when it's burned in a power plant hundreds of miles away, and convenient to forget there's a connection.

When we use resources through technology that has to be tended, we're far more careful about how we use them. To use our antique space heater in the winter, I have to fill its reservoir with kerosene and keep its wick and flame spreader clean; when we want to use it, I have to open and light it. It's not a burdensome process, but it's certainly a more mindful one than flicking a switch.

…Watching the level of kerosene diminish in the reservoir heightens our awareness of how much we're using, and makes us ask ourselves what we truly need.

We would be better off if energy consumers felt more of a connection to their personal energy consumption. Being able to see, or even just quantify, the fuel savings from turning the thermostat down in the winter or walking to the corner store for groceries instead of driving, could spur more people to conserve. Luckily, we’re not constrained by tools from 125 years ago. Websites and apps have unlimited potential to restore the consumer to resource dynamic, showing them how much energy they consume, and ways to reduce their energy footprint. We don't have to go back in time to help people understand their connection to the resources they use every day. Also, thanks to a century of struggle we have a more robust democracy than we did in 1890, which was 30 years before female suffrage in America and 74 years before the Civil Rights Act curtailed Jim Crow laws that kept African Americans from voting. Having our voice heard in Washington D.C. and in our state capitols, is the clearest tangible way we can make an impact on energy policy. That’s just one reason why I’ll be staying in our present day.