In a world where Amazon products are available at the click of a button, and convenience stores litter the lots on every street, modern society has forgotten its roots. Replacing has become more convenient than repairing, the origins of food and water and energy have been taken for granted, and people have disconnected themselves from nature. This experience was my first foray into confronting the bubble of the modern world.
In the Summer of 2019, a team of engineers from Dartmouth College were tasked with installing a micro-hydroelectric generator for the Inian Islands Insititute - an eco-institute located on a remote island off the coast of Alaska. The existing hydroelectric generator had reached the end of its usable life, and the institute was currently running a diesel generator to provide electricity - not exactly in line with their mission of sustainability.
In the months before the trip, I found out that the founder of the institute, Zachary Brown, fundraised for the school by walking/kayaking the entire way from Stanford University's campus in Palo Alto to the Hobbit Hole - the location of the institute on the Inian Islands. Along the way, he wrote about the conveniences of modern technology and the conundrums of sustainable travel (researching far-away places requires significant carbon emissions). This set something off within me - prompting me to question how might we approach travel in a more environmentally and personally fulfilling manner (check it out in writings!)
We flew into Juneau and boarded a seaplane that took us 90 miles out westward into the Pacific Ocean. Snow-capped peaks and silhouettes of dolphins and whales passed beneath us until we finally reached the Hobbit Hole.
During the back-aching hours of removing the rusty old generator (the bolts were so rusted we ended up having to take an angle-grinder to remove them), I heard accounts of family fishing businesses shuttered by ocean acidification, forced migration from rising sea levels, and the gradual erasure of culture and ways of life. Demolishing reinforced concrete with a sledgehammer and hammer+chisel taught me just how strong reinforced concrete was, and drilling holes into steel braces by hand gave me a better understanding of the power and luxury of power-tools.
Sitting there, fastening the bolts on the shiny new generator, I felt trapped: that new generator allows the institute to run fossil-free, but it is still part of the system of consumption and modernization that contributes to the climate change and disconnects people from nature.
At the time, the institute's dishwasher couldn't run at the same time as the coffee-machine because it would strain the electrical grid (lights flickering and all), but in a way these little inconveniences made us understand and respect the resources we consume. Is there some way we can emphasize these understandings? The problem with modernity is that all the amenities and conveniences are taken for granted through habituation, leading to increased consumption and standards of living.
Some notable moments from this adventure included watching schools of rockfish rise from under our kayaks as we spent an afternoon fishing for dinner, watching whales breach no more than 50 feet away from us and holding onto the side of our kayaks for dear life, and flying a drone down the penstock of the generator and threading it through a hole in the trees.
All in all, this was an incredible experience but it left me wondering whether engineering was really the solution to the world's problems. Hydroelectric generators, solar panels, and other forms of renewable energy are really only temporary solutions; their production and eventual replacement only perpetuates the linear-economic system of consumption. One day, this new generator too will rust to a halt and another group of students will be sent to replace it — if by then the island has not already been swallowed by the sea.