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Archive for the ‘Enterprise’ Category

In 1979, US President Jimmy Carter put 32 solar panels on the roof of the Whitehouse, saying:

“a generation from now, this solar heater can be… a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people; harnessing the power of the Sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.”

It was a progressive step on Carter’s part. But change wasn’t quite that simple.

Just a few years later, in 1986, incoming President Ronald Regan had them quietly removed. According to the engineer that had installed them, his staff felt that the equipment “was just a joke and… had it taken down”.

This, says the Berkana Institute‘s former co-President, Deborah Frieze, is a classic example of what happens when a failing system is starting to decline and people attempt to find new ways of doing things. The system resists change.

Old systems will seek to crush alternatives, tending – as all living systems do – towards self-preservation, says Freize.

In the case of the Whitehouse, Regan crushed the initiative that Carter took to promote an alternative energy system. But Carter was just an example of someone trying to do something differently; someone trying to innovate ways to overcome the challenges of our times.

So how do we allow new efforts to emerge within hostile, resistant environments?

According to Berkana’s theory, two important things have to happen.

Firstly, there need to be a growing number of alternatives to the status quo emerging (the little stars in the pictures below): that means lots of innovation, new ideas, experimentation with new models, and trying out new ways of seeing and doing things.

Secondly the alternatives and ideas that do emerge with promise need to be named, connected, nourished and illuminated. This creates the conditions for a different way of doing things to be pioneered.

Thankfully in the case of the Whitehouse’s solar panels, Carter was not alone. While his individual effort alongside many such others was crushed (check out: Who Killed the Electric Car), many, many more were beginning to bubble up not only in America, but across the world as a response to the sustainability challenges we face today.

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Cross-posted from The Better India.

Nine months after my last visit to the tiny district block of Reusa in Uttar Pradesh, I was back to see how Mera Gao Power‘s work is going there and what some of the impacts have been. It was as inspiring, humbling and thought-provoking a journey as ever. Here’s a little photoblog on the trip:

As a social enterprise committed to providing some of the poorest households in India with solar power, Mera Gao Power is making great inroads. Starting from Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh, the venture has reached out to more than 3500 customers in just over a year.

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Girl atop buffalo in the evening light
The fading light begins to slope and redden as evening approaches in Sitapur district, north-central Uttar Pradesh. As you journey here from the bustling city of Lucknow, you travel not only across space but time, too, into a medieval world of smoking wood fires, trundling bullock carts and mud-walled, straw-topped huts. Scantily clad children herd buffalos in from pasture, riding atop them like tiny warriors. There is little electricity here, and access to clean water or basic sanitation is almost absent too. The summers are scorching and the winters frigid yet at this time of year, just after the rains, a cool breeze tousles the teeming grasses blissfully. Even this heavenly vision, though, veils the challenges that were brought to the region by heavy monsoon rains this season, which swelled the Ghaghara river’s banks to bursting point, inundating more than seventy villages in the area and multiple croplands.

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Reusa

Blue Sky-29

It was like a vacuum. An open packet of biscuits, or a plate of peanuts left unattended for just a few minutes would halve in size. It wasn’t theft. Phones, money, laptops: none of them went, despite ample opportunities. Food, on the other hand. That was fair game. When none of us were looking, the staff from the villages would suck it into their wanting systems. One in seven worldwide go to bed hungry each night. Many of those “ones” were here.

My latest trip to Reusa, a district in eastern Uttar Pradesh, was as stark and shocking as the last. Intense, searing heat replacing the bitter cold of winter. Fanless and lightless. Dust. Paltry, threadbare shops. A chemist with a few paracetamols, some iron tonic and plasters. A roadside dukan with long chains of brightly coloured shampoo packets and washing powders, biscuits in the better ones, and perhaps a few bottles of hot water. You will find pesticides though. You’ve gotta hand it to those distributors. Pesticides and fertilisers, along with petrol, seem to have reached everywhere. Even if they come at a price.

No electricity means a lot of things. A lot of things we don’t realize until we experience it. It means no milk for chai in the morning unless it’s fresh from the cow, because there are no fridges. It means no welcome stirring of the air as the midday heat reaches its sweaty climax. It means no light past 6.30 in the evening, unless you have kerosene lamps or are one of those rare few with a generator. And that means no work, no studies, no play and cooking in the dark. Just…. waiting for dawn.

It’s not only a lack of electricity though. Clean water is but an imagination, unless you bring or buy bottles. Hot baths only accompany the burning heat of the summer. Healthcare and access to education is known only to a few. Sniffling, coughing children had welts and infections, with stomachs swollen and reddening hair.

While the place is beautiful, the conditions are dire.

“It feels like the asshole of India”, said a friend who works here on a particularly frustrated day. In many ways, I had to agree…. well not about the asshole bit, but… the situation here feels pretty hopeless. Pretty helpless. And to cap it, pretty oppressed.

“How can I know what is out there”, said Bitti Devi, a farmer’s wife. “My husband keeps me at home, and there are no opportunities here. We have no choices. I don’t know what the world has to offer”.

Yet the people and their warmth were a glowing source of the possible in some of the most challenging situations. I encountered generosity and strength beyond my wildest expectations, a feeling of safety that I did not bargain for, and a never-ending wave of smiles and curiosity, giggles and gurgles from the wide-eyed children in the villages.

The words that rippled through my subconscious most deeply as I left Reusa, clanging at the nerves of my mind, were need and vacuum. Despite the potential inherent in each and every human being, there are certain conditions that seem to leave almost any individual helpless and fettered, to strip them of their most fundamental rights and freedoms – as Amartya Sen might describe it. These abounded here, and it seemed there was no way out. It was like seeing butterflies trapped in a wine bottle.

I was left wondering how on earth I could help. What on earth was I doing there trying to talk about “meaning” in life? I know there is a logic to my questioning, but I am finding it hard to see at times. I know I seek common ground, common pathways. I am following a pull, and having to trust it is taking me towards something larger than myself.

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