In a world where Amazon products are available at the click of a button and convenience stores litter the lots of every street, modern society has forgotten its roots. Replacing is more convenient than repairing, sources of food and water and energy 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 Institute - 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.
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 -- the island home to the Inian Islands Institute. The existing hydroelectric generator was so rusted that the bolts would disintegrate under our wrenches. We ended up using an angle grinder on the metal housing to remove them. During those back-aching hours, I chatted with the island's residents and heard accounts of family fishing businesses shuttered by ocean acidification and forced migration from rising sea levels. After the project had wrapped up, these conversations stayed with me -- prompting me to question the role of engineering in challenging existing paradigms and wondering what else can be done to address the erasure of culture and ways of life.
Working in resource-scarce environments meant that we spent hours demolishing reinforced concrete and drilling holes into steel braces -- by hand. I gained a newfound respect for reinforced concrete and the luxury of power tools. With only some minor hiccups and explosions, the new generator was successfully installed. However, as I was sitting and fastening the bolts on the shiny new generator, for some reason I felt trapped: that new generator would allow the institute to run fossil-free, but it was 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 project 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, flying a drone down the penstock of the generator and threading it through a hole in the trees, and making a trek up to the peak of the island to watch clouds gather over an alpine lake.
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.
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 prompted me to question how might we approach travel in a more environmentally and personally fulfilling manner.